Attorneys in northern Indiana are remembering two in the legal profession who died within a day of each other, including a longtime public defender who many say was one of the best in the state.
Robert Brent Zook, 59, of Goshen died Dec. 30 after suffering from cancer for 14 months. The 1974 graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law began practicing that year in the Elkhart County Public Defender’s Office, earning respect and admiration from the local and state legal community.
Those who worked with Zook through the years say he handled cases of all sizes and had a love and curiosity for the law. He also developed a keen interest in death penalty cases during his career as a public defender. Many describe him as a patient, non-judgmental lawyer who maintained that persona both inside and outside the courtroom, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Born with cystic fibrosis on Christmas Eve 1951, Zook overwhelmingly exceeded the six-month life expectancy at that time for someone with the disease, as well as the current 37-year life expectancy, and his legal community colleagues say he never used his health as an excuse. He had a double lung transplant in 1996, and Elkhart Circuit Judge Terry Shewmaker – who was a deputy prosecutor at the time – recalls how Zook went to the hospital at night during one trial and then checked himself out to be in court each morning.
The Indiana Public Defender Council in 1999 honored Zook with the Gideon Award, the highest honor a public defender can receive in the state.
“He was a special man and lawyer,” said Don Murphy with the Indiana Public Defender Council. “He beat the odds all of his life, for surviving cystic fibrosis and for effectively representing poor people charged with crimes.”
Zook is survived by his wife, Susan, as well as several step-children and a foster sister. Memorial contributions can be made to the Goshen Amateur Radio Club, of which he was a member.
Though Zook’s death hit the public defender’s office hard, a second death one day later left the Elkhart legal community without another admired attorney. James D. Stevens, 67, died Dec. 31 from pancreatic cancer.
Earning a juris doctor from the University of West Los Angeles, Stevens began practicing in Elkhart in 1977 and had served in the public defender’s office and handled pro bono civil rights cases, including the representation of developmentally disabled individuals. Stevens is survived by his wife, Laura, and their daughters, step-daughters, grandchildren, sisters, and several nieces and nephews.•