The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, whose criminal defense attorneys are tasked with assisting individuals accused of crimes, is as busy as you would expect. Phones ring off the hook, paper is a fact of life, and attorneys meet with anxious clients throughout the day. What may surprise you, however, is that while each attorney has passed the bar and is authorized to practice law in the state of Colorado, one of them, Mitchell Cozad, knows the system from both ends. The office’s Deputy State Public Defender was once incarcerated for second-degree assault, yet today, he is using his life to provide legal assistance to indigent individuals charged with crimes in Colorado. In talking with Mitchell Cozad about his journey to becoming an attorney, we would find a man who refuses to be defined by the mistakes he made and who is determined to leave them behind as he serves society.
His road to becoming an attorney began in 2006, when as a former University of Wyoming football player who had transferred to the University of Northern Colorado football team, Mitchell Cozad stabbed his teammate in a parking lot late one night. After being found guilty of second-degree assault in 2007, he would spend nearly three years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. Mitchell Cozad says that being incarcerated gave him a valuable new perspective on his life.
“I watched how my actions affected my family, friends, and relationships, and this gave me the realization of how I had impacted the victim, his family, and the community,” Mitchell Cozad says. “I could see that I had been all about self, not others.”
In prison, he did a lot of thinking both about what he had done and what he wanted to do with his life. He says that prison is where as an inmate, he came face to face with who he saw in the mirror. There was no one to point fingers at except himself for the mess he was in. He was humiliated and ashamed by what he had done. He felt completely overcome by the repercussions of his actions, including the unintended consequences and the social tyranny that he knew would follow him into the future.
“It wasn’t always easy to admit that the hell I was in was of my own making,” Mitchell Cozad remembers. “Yet, the more I faced it and owned up to it, the more I could feel myself becoming a new person. Sometimes you really do have to go to the bottom to find yourself and go in a better direction. I just wish I hadn’t hurt someone else in the process.”
Mitchell Cozad states that incarceration also gave him a unique perspective on the law and allowed him to see things that many people overlook. He became aware that America’s criminal justice system focuses less on the underlying issues of an individual and more on the punishment. He says that many times, as a result, people become the product of generational legacies of poverty, addiction, and incarceration because the root of the problem is so often not addressed.
With this insight, Mitchell Cozad began meeting in the library with other inmates who needed help either drafting motions for post-conviction relief or appellate briefs. He spent many hours researching outdated legal books for information that could help his efforts. When decisions would eventually come back many months later, he would celebrate with inmates or sympathize with them depending on the result, and he started to have a new dream for his life: to become an attorney once he was released from prison.
“More than once, I had doubts and fears,” he admits. “It was sometimes hard to believe in when I was eating breakfast in a prison cafeteria. Yet, I wanted to be 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. I wanted to make something of my life and help others. So, I refused to let myself quit. Nobody ever actually fails unless they quit trying. You have to learn how to fail before you can know how to win. Winners fail and get up, time and time again.”
Mitchell Cozad knew his dream wasn’t impossible. There was already a short but distinguished list of people who had accomplished the same feat. Their examples were inspiring. If they could do it, why not him? Having a felony on his record was not going to make things easy, but he decided to not let it stop him.
Mitchell Cozad was eventually released from prison, and he returned to school to start the long road to becoming an attorney. Walking onto a college campus again was challenging, to say the least.
“When I first returned to campus after incarceration, I went through an adjustment period,” he says. “I felt good about returning to a normal life again. However, I also 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. However, I had to just sit down in class and start learning just like everyone else.”
Mitchell Cozad reveals that his mindset about education had changed significantly. “Prior to prison, I took my opportunities for granted and did not really know what I wanted to do with my life. When I got out and enrolled at Colorado State University Pueblo, I realized how important an education really was and truly appreciated the second chance I had been given.”
Upon getting his bachelor’s, Mitchell Cozad saw that he really could do more than he had thought. He also liked to learn, so 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,” Mitchell Cozad says. “This program helped me develop into a more empathetic, patient person and a better listener.
He also learned to remove preconceived ideas, generalizations, and stigmas that he had collected over the course of his life. He got what he had craved so long: a logical and organized way to solve both internal and external problems. On many occasions, he has shared these tools to help others handle life’s pressures more effectively.
After graduating with his MBA from Eastern New Mexico University, Mitchell Cozad entered law school at the University of Wyoming College of Law. As a student, he interned at the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Public Defenders, giving him valuable experience and a lot of insight into the legal system.
When he earned his Juris Doctor degree and then passed the bar, it 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,” Mitchell 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.”
Today, Mitchell Cozad has a large caseload and spends a lot of time in the courthouse each week. “My job carries a lot of responsibility,” he says. “I don’t take my duties as an attorney lightly. With my experiences and commitment to the law, my contribution to the community will hopefully enhance the quality of lives and experiences with the legal system.”
Mitchell Cozad pauses for a moment in his story, thinking back over years of tumult 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,” Mitchell 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 simply because I am determined that it will be.”