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Samm Cox: Prosecutor with lots of big kid on the side

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At 53, there’s still a lot of big kid in Samm Cox. He admits it.

He loves to joke and jab and tease.

He played baseball from the time he was a little boy until he blew out his knee as a sophomore at Lewis-Clark State College but he’s coached and cheered on young guys on diamonds in Butte ever since.

He’s a rabid Kansas City Chiefs fan and dons a bright red jersey on game days. He’s got plenty of past and present Chiefs he can be: Patrick Mahomes, Derrick Thomas, Tony Gonzalez, Priest Holmes. Heck, he can go back to the ‘60s with his Buck Buchanan jersey.

“Then I wear Chiefs socks, sometimes Chiefs sweats, or Chiefs shorts, and even Chiefs underwear,” Cox said. “Like Puddy from Seinfeld, you gotta support the team.”

His lighter side is so often on display, it sometimes seems it’s his only side.

“I don’t think he’s ever said a serious thing in his life,” Dan Thompson, who’s been close friends with Cox since they were 7, said with a laugh.

Cox does have a serious side, and a professional life, though one chapter is almost over.

For 27 years, Cox has been a state prosecutor in Butte-Silver Bow County, the past 14 as chief deputy county attorney. He’s prosecuted more than 1,700 felony cases, including those that turn stomachs and leave scars on victims and their loved ones forever.

And in those cases — homicides, sexual assaults, crime against children — Cox has often seen horrific photos, knows despicable details and has heard anguish that never make it into courtrooms or public court filings or newspaper stories.

Cox has “won” convictions in a lot of those cases, but they are the kinds that judges, before sending someone to prison, say, “There are no winners here.”

“I think too often people forget the personal aspect of the prosecutor’s office,” Cox said. “I always need to realize that there is always a person or a family of somebody involved in those cases.”

Cox has also prosecuted hundreds of nonviolent crimes but many of those leave victims, too, and they deserve a voice in the criminal justice system.

“If your house is burglarized, that’s the sanctity of your own home and we forget what these people go through,” he said. “We need to be there for them.

“Somebody came into your house. That’s your sanctity. That’s your special place. You feel violated. You probably can’t sleep at night. You’re worried about somebody coming back and doing it again. We have to appreciate what people are going through.”

Cox has had sleepless and restless nights too and there have been times when cases or trials were so complex or intense, he’d work from 6 a.m. to past midnight and barely see his wife Tammy and their three sons for days.

“That was the downside,” he said. “Unless you make the distinction between work life and home life, it can weigh on your psyche.”

Cox has made that distinction for the most part and he’s mostly loved his job. But the workload never stops because crime never stops and Cox says 27 years is enough.

He was supposed to have retired in late July but has stayed on for a short time to finish representing the state in a few cases.

“You know, I think I hit the pinnacle of my career doing this particular job,” he told The Montana Standard in an exit-interview of sorts the newspaper requested. “I just believe it’s time for somebody else to take the reins.”

LIFE AS A PROSECUTOR

Unlike a lot of people who go to law school with dreams of starring in courtroom dramas and making big, big money, Cox wanted to be a prosecutor from the get-go. Heck, law school classmates used to rib him about it.

After he earned a law degree from the University of Montana in 1995, he joined the county attorney’s office at a starting salary of $19,000. It would double after two years, but he was offered a job with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court that would have started at five times as much.

But he wanted to be a prosecutor.

“I always felt this was the way to help people the best,” Cox said. “I mean, people come in here who have been victimized and I figured I can go to sleep at night and feel good about what we do. Make sure somebody is safe and the community is better off.

“I like that feeling,” he said. “You know, it’s not about the money. It’s not about the accolades. It’s about helping people out.”

Cox has prosecuted numerous offenders for sex crimes against children over the years and sometimes, during hearings in those cases, he reveals his ire. Lawyers can’t scream and shout in court but Cox can get frank and raise his voice.

In one recent case, a Butte man who had sex with a 14-year-old girl multiple times before she was reported as a runway told the judge she “was very mature for her age” and he was not the “monster that some people have made me out to be.”

Cox balked at that, saying Cody Allen Eaton had a daughter “the same damn age” as the victim and his actions and text messages to the girl were disgusting. He then ticked off numerous excerpts for the court. Cox wanted 30 years in prison and 20 more on probation supervision and that’s what Eaton got.

Cox has agreed to plea deals in some cases that some citizens have decried as too lenient. The driving factor in most of those, Cox says, are what the victims want.

“We try to work out an agreement or an arrangement that allows them to move on,” Cox said.

There have been plenty of tragic cases over the years.

One involved Audria Rose Nickerson, who was high on meth in a parked car when she fell asleep and smothered her infant daughter. Nickerson had endured a childhood of abuse and addiction but Cox said she had been given numerous offers for help and didn’t take them. She got 14 years in prison.

Those kinds of cases break hearts, including prosecutors’ hearts.

“I taught myself early on to bite the inside of my cheek when I want to cry,” Cox said.

His most challenging case involved Matt Hatfield, who was 49 when he went missing in November 2008. Police found blood spattered in a small cabin he shared with his then teenage son, Adam Hatfield, and evidence someone tried to clean and cover it up.

The elder Hatfield’s body was never found but his partial skull was discovered in 2010 in a campground area north of Butte. But even though police and prosecutors suspected Adam Hatfield, it took more evidence and four more years to charge him with homicide.

Cox and fellow prosecutors Mike Clague and Kelli Fivey tried the case, but in the first trial jurors couldn’t reach a decision. In the second, in 2016, Adam Hatfield was found guilty and was later sentenced to life in prison. In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

“It was largely circumstantial and we had to put everything together over time,” Cox said, noting that "we” included Butte-Silver Bow police and other law enforcement.

Then came the trials.

“It pretty much drained us because we didn’t do it once, we did it twice,” Cox said. “Just dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s and the way we presented it. We had to call witnesses back and go through a six-year period.”

ONE CHAPTER TO THE NEXT

At times during the Hatfield trials, and others, Cox barely saw his family. Clague knows what that’s like, too.

“To get to the courtroom you have to do the preparation and he (Cox) was always very prepared,” Clague said. “He would work months, weeks, years in advance if needed.”

There have been times that Thompson barely saw his friend.

“For the last 30 years, we’ve been going to lunch pretty much every day, and if he’s got a court case, he’s preparing for it,” Thompson said. “There is no lunch until the court case is over, and for weeks before it. That’s all he is doing — preparing.”

Even so, Thompson said, he’s seen Cox show his lighter side in the courtroom a few times.

“In one (jury trial) I went to, he said, ‘Now folks, this is not like an episode of CSI where we’re going to have everything solved in an hour,’” Thompson said. “He definitely brings the jovial side into prosecuting, too.”

Without that, Thompson said, “I don’t know how anybody can do what he has done for as long as he’s done it, just with the few (crime) stories I know.”

As a prosecutor, Clague said, Cox has been a pro.

“He is able to be both compassionate towards the victim and aggressive against the person who commits the crime,” Clague said. “He’s just a very brilliant man. He’s always had a good sense for what the law is and he is very conscientious about applying it.”

Cox has been fortunate to work with three others — Clague, Fivey and Ann Shea — who have been prosecutors in Butte-Silver Bow County for a long time. He will miss that professional camaraderie.

“Most people approach prosecution as a stepping stone towards something else,” he said. “Here … we’ve had very limited turnover. The chemistry between us and the ability to work together has been really important because nobody can handle any of these cases by ourselves.”

Cox knows other areas of the law and even though won’t be practicing it, he’s not giving it up completely.

In the fall, he’ll be an associate professor at Montana Technological University teaching business law, business ethics, oil and gas law and property and estates. Cox earned an undergraduate degree in business development at Tech in 1992.

"I’m really looking forward to that and hopefully I’ll have more time to get back to some of the things I used to do,” he said. “I used to golf, I used to fish, I used to do a lot of stuff like that.”

Big kid stuff in a way, you might say.

And like all kids, he’s looking forward to future time off in June, July and August. Tammy, his wife, has reservations.

“My wife’s a little upset because I will have summers off,” Cox said with a laugh.

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