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Thursday, August 9, 2007
Updated: August 10, 12:41 PM ET
Northern Colorado backup punter found guilty in stabbing

Associated Press

GREELEY, Colo. -- Prosecutors said Mitch Cozad was so obsessed with becoming Northern Colorado's starting punter that he plunged a 5-inch-long knife into his rival's kicking leg.

A jury agreed, convicting Cozad of second-degree assault Thursday. But he was acquitted of the more serious charge of attempted first-degree murder.

The 22-year-old from Wheatland, Wyo., now faces up to 16 years in a Colorado prison for the attack on starting punter Rafael Mendoza.

Defense attorney Joseph Gavaldon said he would appeal.

Mendoza was ambushed outside his apartment on the night of Sept. 11. He couldn't say who attacked him in the dimly lighted parking lot. He testified the assailant was dressed in black from head to toe and had a hood cinched up so only the eyes were visible.

Gavaldon argued it was another student at the university who stabbed Mendoza, not Cozad.

"Absolute disappointment," Gavaldon said after the verdict was read. He said he advised Cozad to stay strong and told him, "This is not over."

The attempted murder charge could have meant a sentence of up to 48 years.

Cozad shook his head as the verdict was read and was led away in handcuffs. He must remain in jail until his Oct. 2 sentencing.

His fiancee, Michelle Weydert, broke into uncontrollable sobbing as deputies snapped the cuffs shut around Cozad's wrists.

His mother, Suzanne Cozad, shouted at prosecutors, "You all know he passed the polygraph, you all know it."

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

Mendoza stared at Cozad as the verdict was read but said nothing in the courtroom. Outside, he insisted Cozad had tried to kill him.

"I was almost killed and he got away with that," he said.

Mendoza said he knew the attempted-murder charge was a long shot because there were no witnesses.

"Other than my testimony, it was going to be hard to prove it," he said.

His uncle, Dave Medina, said the Mendoza family gathered after the verdict and prayed for Cozad's family. His father, Rafael Mendoza Sr., said he felt sorry for Cozad's parents.

"They've got a son going to jail," he said.

The younger Mendoza said he and his family have forgiven Cozad.

"We can't have hate in [our] hearts," he said. "If you go through your life with hate in your heart, you're not a good person at all. I hope we can put this behind us."

Cozad was a junior walk-on when he joined Northern Colorado's football team last season after transferring from the University of Wyoming. Over the six days of testimony and arguments, prosecutors portrayed him as an ambitious but frustrated athlete who stabbed Mendoza because he couldn't outplay him on the field.

Cozad's new teammates and a female friend said he wanted badly to be the starter and was bitter when he was passed over. Northern Colorado coaches said Mendoza, also a junior last season, was unquestionably the better punter.

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

Gavaldon told jurors it was Kevin Aussprung, a student living in the same dorm as Cozad, who stabbed Mendoza. After the verdict, Gavaldon said Aussprung declined to take a polygraph test.

Aussprung adamantly denied he was the attacker.

His attorney, Bill Crosier, said Aussprung wanted to take a polygraph but was angry and nervous over the suggestion that he might be the attacker -- feelings he thought might cause the machine to falsely indicate he was lying.

Crosier said he suggested Aussprung take the test another day, but "the operator didn't call me again."

Cozad's father, Richard Cozad, said his son's case had been exploited politically. He did not say by whom.

"We have a system of 'Observe the opportunity, evaluate the potential, exploit it to the fullest,"' the elder Cozad said. "It's not a system of justice, it's a system of politics."

Gavaldon said the charges against Cozad were too severe. "It's ridiculous ... very unfair," he said.

District Attorney Ken Buck disagreed. "Absolutely, positively not at all," he said.

Buck, a former college punter himself whose son is a freshman linebacker at Army, said the verdict sends a message that Americans take sports too seriously.

"The message is that it's never, ever appropriate to try to hurt somebody, first of all, and second of all, over something as stupid as starting on the football team," Buck said.

Mendoza agreed.

"I hope there's a message throughout the whole country that if you don't get the starting spot, if you're not good enough, you don't go to this length," he said. "You hit the weight room, you run, you practice, you do whatever you can to be better on the field. You don't try to take your teammate out. That's just not right."

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."

As news of the verdict circulated through the team, defensive back Aaron Henderson said it placed the team at ease.

"That was the final nail on the coffin. It's now behind us," Henderson said. "Raf's going to go out and punt the crap out of the football and we'll get on with our season."