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Mitchell Cozad: From Defendant to Defender

The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, a government agency for criminal defense attorneys assisting those accused of crimes, is as active as one might imagine. Among the continuous ringing of phones and the massive number of cases, attorneys are deeply involved in investigations and conversations with their clients. In this environment, Mitchell Cozad stands out with a distinctive experience. His understanding of the legal system spans both perspectives of the law; once a defendant for second-degree assault, he is currently a Deputy State Public Defender. This profound transition from a former defendant to a key figure providing legal representation to indigent individuals in Colorado is remarkable. In talking with him about his journey to becoming an attorney, we encounter a man who has not only overcome his past mistakes but also refuses to let them define him. He is determined to make a positive impact on society, turning his past lessons into meaningful contributions.

Mitchell Cozad

In 2004, he was a preferred walk-on football player at the University of Wyoming (UW), and a part of the team that secured the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl Championship against UCLA. He remained with the Cowboys until the summer of 2006 when he transferred to the University of Northern Colorado on scholarship. He was known for his formidable presence on the field and was nationally recognized for his physical strength and conditioning.

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However, his life changed dramatically when, late one night, he stabbed a teammate in a parking lot—an act that left more questions than answers. This incident led to his conviction for second-degree assault in 2007, and he was sentenced to the Colorado Department of Corrections. He says that his incarceration was a period of significant reflection and transformation, offering him an entirely new perspective on his life and future direction.

“I observed how my actions affected my family, friends, and personal relationships, which led to an understanding of the impact it had on the victim, his family, and the community,” Cozad reflects. “It became clear that my focus had been solely on myself and not on anyone else.”

While incarcerated, he engaged in deep reflection, contemplating both his past actions and his aspirations for the future. He describes prison as a place where, as an inmate, he confronted himself, recognizing that he alone was responsible for the predicament he found himself in. This realization brought feelings of humiliation and shame for what he had done. He struggled with the overwhelming effects of his actions, including the unforeseen consequences and the enduring social stigma he anticipated would shadow his future.

“Admitting to myself that I was to blame for my own problems wasn’t easy,” Cozad says. “However, the more I confronted the truth and accepted responsibility, the more I began to evolve. It’s true that sometimes you need to hit rock bottom to truly discover who you are and start moving in a better direction.”

Mitchell Cozad shares that his time in prison offered him a unique viewpoint on the legal system, revealing aspects often overlooked. He observed that America’s criminal justice system tends to prioritize punishment over addressing the underlying causes behind an individual’s actions. According to him, this approach frequently leads to a cycle where people are trapped in generational patterns of poverty, addiction, and repeated incarceration, as the root issues remain unaddressed.

Gaining this perspective, he started using his time in the library to assist other inmates. He helped them draft motions for post-conviction relief and appellate briefs, often spending hours researching outdated legal texts to find information that could aid their cases. Whenever decisions came back, sometimes after many months, he would either share in their celebrations or offer support in their disappointments. It was during this period that a new ambition began to take shape in his mind: becoming an attorney after his release from prison.

“I often struggled with doubts and fears,” Cozad admits. “Believing in a better future was challenging, especially imagining it while having breakfast in a prison cafeteria. However, I was committed to becoming a new person, someone who had a strong duty of personal responsibility to himself and to society. I also did not want to be defined by a single bad act or the worst day of my life. My aim was to create a meaningful life and help others. That’s why giving up was not an option for me. Nobody ever actually fails unless they quit trying. You must learn how to fail before you can know how to win. Winners fail and get up, time and time again.”

Mitchell Cozad knew that his mission was not impossible. He drew inspiration from a small yet notable group of individuals who had successfully accomplished the same feat. Their journeys motivated him. If they could do it, why not him? Despite the challenges posed by a felony on his record, he was determined not to let it stop him.

After his release from prison, he embarked on his journey back to academia, beginning the long journey to becoming an attorney. Walking onto a college campus once again posed its own set of challenges.

“Coming back to campus after my time in prison was an adjustment period,” Cozad says. “There was a sense of relief in returning to normal life, but at the same time, I felt withdrawn from people because of my lack of confidence that I had developed due to the circumstances. It was like I had a big ‘F’ for ‘felon’ on my forehead for all the world to see. Despite this, I knew I had to take my place in the classroom and engage in learning just like everyone else.”

Mitchell Cozad reveals that his mindset about education had changed significantly. “Before my incarceration, I took my opportunities for granted and did not really know what I wanted to do with my life. But after my release and enrolling at Colorado State University Pueblo, I came to understand the true value of an education. I was deeply grateful for the second chance I had received.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he decided to keep going and get his master’s degree with a concentration in Alternative Dispute Resolution from Denver University. “After participating in counseling to help reintegrate back into society, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others,” Cozad says. “This program helped me develop into a more empathetic, patient person and a better listener.”

Throughout his studies, he also worked on shedding the preconceived notions, generalizations, and stigmas he had accumulated over his own life. He finally found what he had long desired, a logical and organized approach to resolving problems within himself and in the world around him. He frequently uses these skills to assist his client’s in managing life’s stresses more effectively.

A former assistant coach from UW, who preferred to remain anonymous, expressed no surprise when he learned that Mitchell Cozad had become an attorney. “Mitch’s transition into law didn’t come as a shock to me,” he stated, attributing this to Mitch’s notable traits during his collegiate years. The coach’s impressions of Mitch, based on their shared past, painted a clear picture of a young man with promising potential that extended beyond athletics. “Mitch was a unique athlete, very coachable, polite, and his work ethic was unmatched,” the coach reflected. He believed these qualities were the steppingstones towards Mitch’s current success as an attorney. The coach continued, “The determination and grit that Mitch displayed on the field and in the weight room seem to have been channeled into his legal career, making this transition a compelling testament to his ability to excel in different arenas.”

Mitchell Cozad pursued his legal studies at the University of Wyoming College of Law. His time as a law student includes internships at the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Public Defenders, where he gained invaluable experience and insights into the legal system.

Upon earning his Juris Doctor degree and passing the bar exam, the reality of his achievements felt surreal. “It had been such a long road that to graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, and be sworn into the Colorado bar was both exciting and unbelievable,” Cozad says. “I never could have done it without the faith and support of my family, friends, and colleagues. My life is proof that circumstances and mistakes do not have to define an individual if they find the focus and the will to change their narrative.”

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Today, Mitchell Cozad has a large caseload and dedicates extensive hours each week to court proceedings. He acknowledges the gravity of his role, stating, “My job comes with significant responsibility. I do not take my duties lightly. With my own experiences and commitment to the law, my contribution to the community will hopefully enhance the quality of lives and experiences with the legal system.”

He pauses for a moment in his story, thinking back over years of turmoil and transformation. While his own criminal history is just that – history – he will never forget his past. Every person, he says, is the sum of their life’s experiences, so while he is thankful for the blessings and second chances he has been given as well as the support of his wonderful mentors, he will never forget how he came to be the empathetic attorney that he is today.

“How far I’ve come hits me at the oddest times,” Mitch Cozad says. “Sometimes when I shake the hand of a police officer or another attorney, I remember how not so long ago, I was an inmate. Sometimes it hits me when I realize that if I want to stay outside another ten minutes, I have the freedom to do that. My entire future is ahead of me, and it’s mine to make. I spend every day trying to make someone else’s life better. I’ve been to the bottom, and I can tell you that every step you take climbing up again is rewarding. My life will be better because I am determined that it will be.”

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