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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Jury deliberating in punter attack case

Associated Press

GREELEY, Colo. -- Jurors in the trial of a college football player charged with trying to kill a rival interrupted their deliberations Wednesday to ask the judge a question about "intent to cause death."

Mitch Cozad, a former backup punter at Northern Colorado, is charged with attempted first-degree murder and second-degree assault in a knife attack on the starter, Rafael Mendoza. Prosecutors said it was a bid to get the starting job.

Jurors got the case Wednesday morning, and shortly after 4 p.m. they sent District Judge Marcelo Kopcow a note asking, "Does intent to cause death need to be present or can it come later?"

After conferring with attorneys for both sides, Kopcow sent the jury a reply that did not directly answer their question: "The court has supplied the jury with all the applicable law you must apply in reaching your verdict."

The jury left for the day without reaching a verdict about an hour after sending Kopcow the question.

Cozad had been stoic throughout most of the trial but appeared shaken after Kopcow announced his response and left the courtroom. The jury was not present at the time.

"He's scared to death," defense attorney Joseph "Andy" Gavaldon said. "He has dreams and mountains to climb."

Prosecutors portrayed Cozad as an ambitious but frustrated athlete who could not find any other way to break out of his backup role other than stabbing Mendoza in his kicking leg.

Gavaldon argued Cozad was a gentle and laid-back student from Wheatland, Wyo., who wouldn't resort to a knife attack. Gavaldon claimed another student stabbed Mendoza.

Cozad, who did not testify, could face up to 48 years in prison if convicted of both counts.

Mendoza was attacked last Sept. 11 outside his apartment in Evans, a small town adjacent to Greeley. He was left with a deep gash in his kicking leg but later returned to the team.

He testified he could not see who attacked him.

Just before the trial was recessed for the day, Mendoza and approximately 15 family members filed into the courtroom. They listened as Kopcow dismissed the jury until Thursday.

"My family has been very supportive of me," Mendoza said.

Mendoza spent the day by going to class in the morning and then having a barbecue with friends and relatives at his house in Thornton.

The 22-year-old Mendoza stopped for an impromptu press conference outside the court building as he left. He was asked if he had any questions about who attacked him on Sept. 11.

"It depends on what the jury says," Mendoza said. "If they come back with the guilty verdict, it had to be him. If not, he [the attacker] is still out there and we'll go from there."

Mendoza then quickly headed off to his nearby campus for the first day of Northern Colorado football practice. He said the football field has been his escape.

"Last season, it was tough for me to sleep, go to school," Mendoza said. "As soon as I stepped on the football field, my whole mind cleared and I had nothing going on in my mind other than my teammates and playing football."

Gavaldon said he had to take his client out for walks around the building every once in a while as they waited for the jury to come back with a verdict. Cozad briefly sat on a bench outside the courtroom with his fiancee, Michelle Weydert. He picked up a newspaper and read the cover story on Barry Bonds' 756th career home run, breaking Hank Aaron's record of 755.

He also scanned a preview article on the Northern Colorado football team. The story mentioned his name, his trial and how the Bears are trying to bring the focus back to the football field.

Gavaldon said Cozad has passed the past year by taking online courses through the University of Wyoming and helping him with the case.

Gavaldon said he's not reading too much into the time it's taking the jury to deliberate.

"We don't know what's going on in there, only they know," he said.

In her closing statement, prosecutor Michele Meyer said Cozad would do anything to play football.

"No matter how hard he tried on the football field he could not compete with Mr. Mendoza at his skill level and the only option was to take it off the field and that's what he did," Meyer said.

"He tried to kill him. Swiped at him twice, couldn't get him, so he stabbed him in the back of the leg," she said.

In his closing statement, Gavaldon said it was Kevin Aussprung who attacked Mendoza.

Aussprung, who testified in the trial, adamantly denied he was the attacker. He said Cozad had offered him money to accompany him and watch over his car outside Mendoza's apartment the night of the attack.

"[Aussprung] pulled the wool over the district attorney's eyes because he's not charged," Gavaldon said. "The issue in this case is if Mr. Cozad stabbed Rafael Mendoza, there is reasonable doubt."