The young lawyer was seven months pregnant with twins when she sat before a board of men in 1987 to interview in the hopes of being named a Johnson County judge.

Across the state, fewer than 20 women served as trial court judges in the 280 courts spread across the counties at the time.

Cynthia “Cindy” Emkes was shocked when she got the call that she was now the judge of Johnson Superior Court 2. She was 29 and the first female judge in Johnson County.

Immediately, she knew she would have to work harder, prove that she could juggle being a mother of twins and wife to husband Michael with her new career, overcome any stereotypes about her age and expect the unexpected. While she felt she had the support of other judges and attorneys, she presumed that they didn’t think she would be able to do the job for long.

She started over-preparing for meetings about proposals for the county’s legal system or rulings she had to make. She wanted to be seen as knowledgeable and confident in how she handled every ruling on a motion or evidence, every sentence, every decision about how to evolve the court systems and add programs for families, offenders, addicts and children.

“I felt like I really needed to work hard to show the confidence I needed,” Emkes said. “I had every intention of making it.”

Thirty years later, with a career that boasts being known as a judge who was relentless in pursuing the best programs to help families going through crisis or to give offenders the best chance at a new life and after becoming one of the state’s death penalty legal experts, she still hadn’t stopped. She retired this year as the longest-serving judge in county history. Greenwood attorney Peter Nugent was selected as her replacement until her term expires in 2020.

Her career path wasn’t mapped out for her. When she speaks to young groups of girls at school or in youth groups, she is able to tell them that they too can accomplish an education and career that might seem impossible with obstacles around every corner, and that they should set a path for themselves and be proud of their core values.

Because she did it.

Humble beginnings

Emkes is from Seymour, where she lived with her mother and siblings after her father died when she was 5 years old. The family didn’t have much because her mother was disabled, and their only income was her father’s military benefits and Social Security. The family didn’t own a vehicle until Emkes got her driver’s license and needed a way to get to work.

They never owned a home and moved more times than she can recall until Emkes was a junior in high school, when her mother became ill with cancer that would take her life five years later.

Her plan to attend college wasn’t discouraged but didn’t seem plausible to the rest of her family.

She earned an academic scholarship to Indiana University in Bloomington, worked at a drug store in the city during the week and went to Seymour on the weekend to work as a waitress and take care of her mother. Without her scholarships, her father’s veterans benefits and the income from two jobs, she could have never afforded tuition.

Emkes worked to graduate in three years while taking care of her sick mother, because she wanted her mother to know that she was a college graduate.

Her mother died while Emkes was taking her final exams during her last semester. But she died knowing her daughter was a college graduate.

Emkes shares that part of her life in the hope of inspiring others to strive for what might seem like an impossible goal. She’s not ashamed of her family’s poverty during her childhood.

Of all the accolades during her public service, the greatest come from her husband and children, because she always worried about being the best wife and mother while balancing her career.

In their notes to her upon her retirement, daughter Sarah Humphrey and son Joshua Emkes both reflected on her work ethic, integrity, compassion and passion and reflected on how hard work and the right attitude can lead to great achievements.

Knowing she inspired her children has been a great reward, she said.

The traits apparent to her children have been shown in the courtroom time and time again.

“She never believed she was better than anyone else,” criminal defense lawyer Andy Baldwin said.

The person you saw on the bench was the same person you saw off the bench, Baldwin said.

Her initial plan after college was to be a paralegal, but after graduating from that program, she went to law school.

She worked in private practice in Greenwood for two years before Judge Larry McKinney, who died in September after a long career as both a county and federal judge, appointed her as a magistrate for circuit court. When McKinney was tapped for the federal job, Jeff Eggers was named to replace him in circuit court. Emkes was named as new judge of Johnson Superior Court 2, replacing Eggers.

Balancing her career, being a wife and raising twins and giving time to the many boards and groups that she was committed to never came easy. She’s constantly worked to prove herself.

“She has, to the very end, kept on top of the law,” Johnson County Deputy Prosecutor Rob Seet said. “She cared about the law. She invested herself in making sure she knew the law, that she studied it.”

Through the years, she’s spoken to professional groups and attorneys about how to make it work.

“You learn to be driven,” Emkes said, attributing that trait to the era that she attended law school. She graduated in 1985.

Her natural personality is to be passionate, driven and work hard. At times, though, she has found that she needs to walk a fine line not to be viewed as pushy or overbearing. Against her instincts, at times, she has backed off.

Johnson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd has learned through the years not to appease Emkes by giving his support for an idea unless he was genuine. Because the next day, Emkes would have outlined proposals, funding and the next steps and be ready to take action. He calls her the least-procrastinating person he knows.

In 2010, she was one of nine finalists for a vacancy on the Indiana Supreme Court.

She thanked the voters of Johnson County for having faith in her time and time again, and gave credit to the other judges, attorneys and the court staff for their hard work and what they taught her.

She was given a Sagamore of the Wabash, which is the highest honor awarded by the governor to Hoosiers who have served the state.

Never her goal

Emkes had been a judge for about five years when a Marion County court asked her to consider taking on a case as a special judge, which is common when a judge has a conflict of interest or another matter that keeps him or her from handling a case. The suspect was Eric Holmes, the court staff mentioned. She agreed to review the file. Then she came across the words: death penalty case.

She accepted the Holmes case and dug in, researching every death penalty case to learn everything she could and know as much or more than anyone else involved in the matter. She issued countless rulings and conducted hearings before the six-week trial began, while continuing to run her Johnson County court.

Holmes was charged with stabbing two co-workers to death at a Shoney’s restaurant. Emkes never wanted to become a death penalty expert or make decisions about whether a person should be sentenced to death, but her work on the case made her the expert in the state, and years later she would write the manual for other judges to follow in death penalty cases. Of the 13 people currently on Indiana Death Row, two of them were sentenced by her: Holmes and Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted of abducting, raping and murdering 18-year-old Franklin College student Kelly Eckart in 1997.

Emkes also had to work through her own beliefs and faith regarding the death penalty. She is a faithful person and didn’t want God to put the burden of life or death on her, she said. A man showed up at her Greenwood home once and asked her how she could judge life or death for another human. She, too, had wondered that.

Her faith constantly entered her mind, and she worked to reconcile it. She heard opinions from everyone and would listen and understand their views.

But she was sworn to uphold the law.

“I clearly understand the severity of the decision,” Emkes said. “It was one of the most important decisions of my life.”

As the Holmes trial continued, she, the jurors and others in the courtroom saw and heard about the gruesome crime. Every day, she saw the defendant’s family and began to realize the value of life more and more, she said.

“The weight of the decision became heavier and heavier as the case went on,” Emkes said.

The case was racked with additional challenges. The issue of race had come up in jury selection. Fire broke out at the hotel where the jurors were staying, and four alternate jurors could not finish, leaving just the minimum.

Ultimately, Emkes sentenced Holmes to death.

After the trial, the death penalty notebook she had built became the basis for training other judges across the state on how to conduct a death penalty trial. She was chairwoman of the Criminal Instructions Committee on the death penalty. She attended national conferences. She had become the guru.

In 2000, she handed down her second death sentence in Overstreet’s conviction.

This time, Emkes felt much more prepared. She had been through the precise legal issues regarding death penalty cases and managed the details behind the scenes, such as security and sequestering the jury.

Prosecutor Brad Cooper recalls her command over the courtroom during contentious moments in the trial, and said she had hundreds of rulings to make that would all be questioned on appeal. All of her decisions were upheld, which is beyond impressive, Cooper said.

“You just can’t say enough about the quality of her work,” Cooper said.

Years after the Overstreet trial, Emkes was asked to testify before Indiana legislators who were studying how to clarify the state’s death penalty laws. She took jurors from the Overstreet trial with her because of the perspective they could give legislators regarding legal instructions given to jurors.

Overstreet has since been determined too mentally ill to be executed at this time.

Firm but fair

While the death penalty decisions were the most challenging of her career, Emkes has taken every decision seriously and considered how it will affect a mom, dad, grandparent or child.

When speaking to a group of young girls, she told them this about her work: “Countless times every day I am responsible for making major decisions regarding the things most near and dear to people — decisions about their property like who gets the house in a divorce, their families like which parent is granted custody of the children and how often the children visit the other parent, decisions about their freedom — should someone go to jail, for how long, if they commit a crime.”

As judge of a court that handles major felony criminal charges, Emkes has had to steel herself against showing emotion when faced with the most horrific photos from autopsies or of injuries and videos from crime scenes. During the first trial she conducted on a rape charge in the late 1980s, a juror became sickened at the victim’s testimony.

“I have never seen her outwardly get rattled. I’ve never seen her raise her voice,” Seet said. “She keeps control of her courtroom with a quiet, calm confidence.”

She treats attorneys, litigants and defendants with respect, listens and doesn’t over-react.

“We’ve heard plenty of shocking things in that courtroom,” Seet said. “She never reacts.”

Through the years, multiple accused child molesters or child killers have faced charges in her court. She’s also overseen cases that raised issues beyond the courtroom — such as whether a parent’s faith is a legally acceptable reason to not seek medical attention for a child and whether the legal system had done enough to protect a child from a mentally ill parent, and how criminal charges against the mentally ill are handled.

In 2005, Emkes sentenced the parents of a 2-year-old child who died of untreated puerperal sepsis to two years in a work-release program, with the sentences staggered so that one parent could remain at home with their other children.

The parents, who believed in faith-based healing and were members of a church that discouraged medical care, were ordered by Emkes to submit to monitoring of their children by a child welfare worker and were ordered as part of their sentence to obtain medical care for them if a health emergency arises.

Three years ago, she sentenced a mother to 55 years in prison for the death of her 3-year-old son. The Trafalgar mother had drowned the boy in the bathtub. In the days, months and years before his death, the mother had called police multiple times to report people in her attic, her car being tampered with repeatedly and suspicious images she believed she saw on her home security system. Court records showed she had been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

She was initially sent to a mental health facility, but Emkes later ruled that the mother had become competent to stand trial.

Seet said that Emkes has always made solid decisions and explained her reasoning — in the legal field that’s known as making a great record, even if attorneys or prosecutors disagree with the decision.

“When she sentences someone, she doesn’t just say what goes against and for and the sentence,” Seet said. “She explains in detail what is going through her mind and why she is imposing what she is imposing.”

At times, Baldwin thought that Emkes had handed down too harsh of a sentence to his client. Families suffer when a person is sent to prison, he said.

But years later, it has often become apparent that it was exactly what was needed, he said.

“She had a track record of knowing when someone needed to go for their own good, for their future,” Baldwin said. “She had an innate sense of the right thing to do.”

Cooper said that Emkes has been able to listen, come up with additional ideas and give weight to factors in a case when presiding over plea hearings, and also be rigid to guard people’s rights in a jury trial.

“She knows those rules better than anyone at any time at any place in this state,” Cooper said.

As prosecutor, he appreciates her command of evidentiary rules, and said the strike zone never changes with Emkes.

“That’s the best thing you can ask of a trial court judge,” Cooper said.

{span}Beyond the bench{/span}

Outside of the court, Emkes worked to establish new programs that were crucial for helping families going through divorce. The challenge was not just in determining which programs should be put in place and how they would work, but in getting other officials involved in the legal system or its funding to buy in.

Attorneys and divorcing parents were resistant to the new “What About the Children” program Emkes established, but it became mandatory because it was best for the parents and the children of a separating family, she said. Johnson County was one of the first counties in the state to begin the program.

“We knew it was the thing to do, it just wasn’t well received,” Emkes said.

Alternative dispute resolution, which can be any form of mediation or negotiation outside of the courtroom, is now commonplace, but that wasn’t the case when Emkes became a judge. She pushed for it because resolving issues in mostly domestic relationships outside of the courtroom saves everyone time, but it also creates the best opportunity for a decent future.

“Anytime you can keep people out of the courtroom, the rest of their relationship is going to be so much better,” she said.

She was instrumental in shifting, when appropriate, from punishment for alcohol and drug offenders to rehabilitation and services.

She helped establish work-release programs and home detention monitoring for certain offenders, and remembers having to convince other county officials that they should spend the money to begin the community corrections program, where offenders can go to work but spend the rest of their day at the community corrections facility. She wasn’t going to give up if it was the right step that would help families and the county.

“She moved with the times,” Baldwin said. “She recognized that addiction, if that’s not in a person’s life, they will lead a different kind of life.”

Cooper said that Emkes has tended to that program, expanded it and made it self-funded.

“She cares greatly about it,” the prosecutor said.

Residents often think judges are in the courtroom all day, but Emkes knew from the start that she wanted to teach, mentor and start new programs. In other words, make a difference.

“That’s been an important part of my career,” Emkes said. “I wanted to be a leader in the courtroom and out, and in the community. That’s part of my job.”

“The system hits every family,” she said.

Seet said some of the most challenging cases involve suspects who have clear mental health problems that the criminal justice system can’t fully address.

“She invests herself in looking for a resolution that both protects the community and at least tries to give the help to the person that they need,” Seet said.

She has worked tirelessly, late at night and on the weekends, and against the advice of friends and colleagues who cautioned her that she had taken on too much, Seet said.

“When we have needed her to step in and talk to a mental health provider for what we need, she’ll do it,” Seet said. “She’ll make the phone call.”

She never became cynical or accepted the status-quo or expected the worst out of accused criminals or a divorcing couple in its worst moment, said the people who have worked with her for years. Even as she packed her office this summer, she was thinking about how the courts could become more innovative and open-minded.

Emkes was known as a judge who saw not just suspects, “but human beings who could change their lives for the better, and that’s a great benefit to society,” Baldwin said. “It’s not just a human thing to do for somebody, but there’s a huge societal benefit for that type of thinking.”

She looked into every case, every suggested resolution or sentence. She treated no two people or cases the same, and was willing to try a unique sentence. One defendant would certainly disappoint her, but she still gave the next person a chance at a different sentence.

“I always hear them out,” Emkes said. “I want the pitch. Tell me why.”

She will miss framing a sentence for a specific situation and seeing if it works. Unfortunately, many of the people given a chance in court often return after not following through on the conditions of the sentence, she said. She still expects success.

“It’s very rewarding to see someone come back for sentence modification and you can’t recognize them,” she said.

Baldwin said Emkes made an impression on him when he was beginning his career. He never had to be afraid of her and could always ask her to explain her decisions, and he was able to pick her brain so he could advocate better for clients in the future.

“She wanted lawyers to succeed, and balanced that with justice, and what is the right thing for the community,” Baldwin said. “That is an incredibly difficult balance, and she did it effortlessly. It’s been an incredible thing to behold.”

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.