Defense rests after calling three witnesses; closing arguments coming

Updated: August 7, 2007, 9:03 PM ET
Associated Press

GREELEY, Colo. -- Prosecutors and the defense finished their closing statements Tuesday and sent to the jury the case of a former Northern Colorado backup punter accused of trying to kill the starter.

Court recessed Tuesday before the jury had a chance to deliberate. Earlier in the day, the defense rested after calling only three witnesses.

Mitch Cozad, who did not testify, is charged with attempted first-degree murder and second-degree assault in the attack on Rafael Mendoza last Sept. 11. Police and prosecutors have said it was a bid to get the starter's job.

The prosecution rested its case earlier Tuesday. Defense attorney Joseph Gavaldon asked the judge to dismiss the attempted murder charge, saying prosecutors did not prove their case. The judge refused.

"The defendant was willing to 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," prosecutor Michele Meyer said during closing statements.

"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.

Mendoza was attacked 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. Gavaldon has claimed it was another Northern Colorado student and not Cozad.

"He pulled the wool over their eyes, he pulled the wool over the district attorney's eyes because he's not charged," Gavaldon said of the other student during closing statements. "The issue in this case is if Mr. Cozad stabbed Rafael Mendoza, there is reasonable doubt."

Prosecutors spent more than four days laying out their case against Cozad, calling police, a former girlfriend of Cozad's, other Northern Colorado students and Mendoza himself as witnesses.

Gavaldon, by contrast, took only a few hours, calling two character witnesses and a third who contradicted testimony of a prosecution witness.

Cozad's aunt, Sandee Kitchen, described Cozad as caring, gentle and helpful. "He's like a teddy bear. He's not aggressive," she said.

Randy Yaussi, director of the Outward Bound program at the University of Wyoming, said he has known Cozad for 3½ years and described him as polite and caring.

"I have never, ever seen anything that would make me think he's aggressive," he said.

Cozad's fiancee, Michelle Weydert, contradicted earlier testimony by Angela Vogel, a former girlfriend of Cozad's.

Vogel said Cozad had come to her dorm room on Sept. 4 dressed in black and crying, anxious and frustrated.

"He told me he got to be a ninja that night," Vogel said. "'Oh my God, what I almost did tonight.' I thought he was suicidal."

Weydert testified Cozad was with her that night, was not dressed in black and made no references to a ninja.

Vogel had testified Monday that she lied to police at Cozad's request, first saying Cozad was with her at the time Mendoza was stabbed.

She said she quickly regretted that lie and 15 minutes later told investigators Cozad had left for part of the evening and did not contact her again until shortly after 10 p.m.

Police said Mendoza was stabbed at about 9:30 p.m.

During cross-examination by Gavaldon, Vogel said she got scared when police accused her of being with Cozad on a crosstown trip to Mendoza's apartment the night of the stabbing.

Vogel also testified that Cozad once asked her what she thought would hurt most, "getting hit by a car, getting beat by a baseball bat or getting stabbed?"

Prosecutors showed a series of text messages they said Cozad sent Vogel, including, "We were not apart between 8 and 12."

In a Sept. 12 interview with police, Cozad said his text messages were meant to comfort Vogel, according to an audio tape of the session played in court.

"I was saying, 'It's OK. Just be strong,'" Cozad said on the tape.

Later in the interview, a detective accused Cozad of asking Vogel to lie and said, "You know what happened to Rafael."

Cozad's mother, Suzanne, who was present for the interview, interrupted and said, "At this point, I think we need an attorney."

"I'm done," Mitch Cozad said on the tape.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press