Backup punter accused of stabbing starter guilty of assault

By Pat Graham

GREELEY, Colo. – A former college backup punter accused of stabbing a rival in a desperate bid to become the starter was found guilty of second-degree assault Thursday, but jurors acquitted him of attempted first-degree murder.

Mitch Cozad, who faces up to 16 years in prison, was led away in handcuffs and must remain in jail while awaiting sentencing on Oct. 2.

Cozad, of Wheatland, Wyo., was accused of stabbing Northern Colorado starting punter Rafael Mendoza last Sept. 11.

Cozad’s attorney, Joseph Gavaldon, said he would appeal.

Mendoza said he could not identify his attacker. Gavaldon argued it was another student who stabbed Mendoza.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

Cozad shook his head as the verdict was read. His fiancee, Michelle Weydert, broke into uncontrollable sobbing as the cuffs clicked shut around his wrists.

Cozad’s mother, Suzanne Cozad, shouted at prosecutors, “You all know he passed the polygraph, you all know it.”

Gavaldon told reporters Cozad had taken a polygraph test and had passed, but he said polygraph results are inadmissible in Colorado courts.

Mendoza was stabbed in a dimly lit parking lot outside his apartment in Evans, a small town adjacent to Greeley. He was left with a deep gash in his kicking leg but returned to play later in the season. He worked out with the team during its first practice of the 2007 season on Wednesday.

Mendoza stared at Cozad as the verdict was read but said nothing.

In six days of testimony and arguments, prosecutors portrayed Cozad as an ambitious but frustrated athlete who could not find any way to break out of his backup role other than stabbing Mendoza.

Defense attorney Joseph Gavaldon, who called only three witnesses, argued Cozad was a gentle and laid-back student who wouldn’t resort to a knife attack.

Jury foreman Tim Scholfield read a statement on behalf of the panel saying the case was difficult.

“This has not been an easy decision for us to make, and none of us are happy about having reached the conclusion we did,” he said. “We are all satisfied that with the information given this is the correct verdict.”

Cozad’s father, Richard Cozad, lashed out at the court system.

“We don’t have a system of justice. We have a system of ‘Observe the opportunity, evaluate the potential, exploit it to the fullest,'” he said. “It’s not a system of justice, it’s a system of politics.”

The attempted first-degree murder charge carried a sentence of up to 48 years.