Spokane County Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, known by courtroom antagonists for his fairness, respectful demeanor and strict adherence to the letter of the law, has died at age 61.
Cozza died surrounded by family at about 7:15 p.m. at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center of complications from bypass surgery he underwent after a heart attack last year, according to sources.
Cozza was an accomplished attorney and judge, with more than 25 years of legal experience in Spokane County. He began his career as a Spokane County deputy prosecuting attorney, working mostly in the misdemeanor unit, though he occasionally took on felony cases.
In 1990, he ran for and won a position on the District Court bench, where he served six years until being elected to the Superior Court bench in 1996. He served there until taking a recent leave of absence because of a heart-related illness.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said his first felony trial was in front of Cozza in 1999.
“You knew when you were going to go in there you were going to get a well-reasoned opinion,” he said. “He knew the law and he was fair.”
Cozza was known as a fair judge who showed both sides respect, Haskell said. But he was also known to strictly follow the letter of the law.
In April 2013, he sentenced an epileptic burglar to seven years in prison after the 32-year-old terrorized a family for weeks with a series of break-ins. The robber pleaded with the judge, saying his latest anti-seizure medication may have had a hand in his lapse of judgment.
“I understand you may have an epilepsy problem,” Cozza said to the burglar in court. “I don’t minimize that in any way … but none of that rises above a theory.”
Cozza was also known to demand respect in his courtroom. In January 2015, he gave a teenager a brief lecture and then had him booked into Spokane County Juvenile Detention after the teen stormed out of the courtroom, leaving a string of expletives in his wake while there to see his brother, who was arrested the day before.
“Judge Cozza was an extraordinarily kind and compassionate man and superb jurist,” Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price said. “We are devastated by his loss, and our hearts go out to his family during this difficult time.”
Cozza graduated from Gonzaga Preparatory School in 1973 and received his Bachelor of Arts from Gonzaga University in 1977. He finished his law degree in 1980 at the University of Washington School of Law.
Price said Cozza could regularly be seen at Gonzaga Prep football games and Gonzaga University basketball games.
“He was a huge, huge Gonzaga fan,” he said. “His chambers were packed with Gonzaga University posters.”
Cozza was re-elected to the bench in November, running unopposed.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said Cozza was active in criminal justice reform. Cozza was also active in sanctioning Eastern State Hospital for failing to evaluate inmates promptly. Since December 2014, he found the hospital in contempt of court in at least 11 cases.
“Judge Cozza was one of the most thoughtful and leading judges we have on the bench,” French said. “As a community, we’ve lost a leader and humanitarian. His seat is going to be difficult to fill.”
Gov. Jay Inslee will appoint a replacement for Cozza. The appointee will stand for election in November.