Chet Pleban doesn’t really care if you like him; it’s not his job to make friends. For the past few decades, Pleban has been one of the most celebrated criminal defense attorneys in St. Louis, with most of his clients being accused police officers.
Pleban’s job is to make sure those clients get the aggressive defense he’s widely known to deliver. He’s been called a bulldog, a pit bull and a mediamonger – and those are some of the nicer things he’s been called. But whatever Pleban’s called, more often than not, his clients get acquitted.
Back in my days as a news reporter, I always knew that if my story involved Pleban, it wasn’t going to be boring. Pleban was a master of using the media to sway public opinion. But he says opening up to the media is like using a double-edged sword.
“When you’re quoted all the time and on TV all the time, that’s good and bad because if you stumble, it’s there for everybody to see,” Pleban says. “The greater the media attention, the greater the publicity if you fail. It doesn’t do your client any good, and it doesn’t do your career any good, either.”
But Pleban’s rarely failed.
He realized the power of the press while he was in his final year of law school at Saint Louis University in 1974. He says he’d gotten an internship with a law firm representing a federal drug enforcement unit and was helping in the defense of some agents who were accused of wrongdoing during a raid.
A Post-Dispatch reporter covering an inquiry thought Pleban was the primary attorney and asked him a question about the case. Pleban was later quoted in the paper, and his boss was furious – but he says the quote may have helped clear the agents.
In a lot of cases, it’s the prosecutors who divvy out information to the press, so Pleban feels it’s his job to try to even the playing field. Whether in pretrial press conferences or with quips just outside a courtroom, Pleban, back in the day, gave reporters like me something to talk about and always kept us captivated, wondering what was about to happen next.
One of his highest-profile cases was the trial of St. Louis police officer Robert Dodson in 1999. Dodson was charged with murder after a burglary suspect died of a head injury while the officer was trying to arrest him on a rooftop. In a dramatic trial, Pleban convinced the jury that Dodson was innocent.
That trial inspired Pleban to write a thinly veiled novel based on the case titled Conviction of Innocence. Pleban says he was outraged that prosecutors charged Dodson even before the autopsy was completed. The feelings he wrote about in the book mirror the real-life angst and stress he still feels every time he waits for a verdict.
“When the jury goes into deliberations, and you are representing a person that you know is not guilty, that’s extremely stressful because you are playing for all the marbles,” Pleban says. “If you lose, and if your client is a police officer, and he goes to prison, that’s a potential death sentence.”
He’s writing a second book, by the way, expected to be released next spring. Pleban says writing has helped him unwind, as he admits the stress takes its toll.
At 67, he’s not willing to say he’s thinking about retirement, but he is trying to lighten his workload. He spends time between his homes in Florida and St. Louis, and the amount of preparation for trial is offset by walks on the beach.
He’s also relying more on his partners and his son, J.C. He says he’s known J.C. was going to be a great defense attorney ever since the day the kid was pulled over by a cop at 16 and talked his way out of a ticket.
“I told him if he gets pulled over again, ‘You tell the officer he has got to give you a ticket!’” Pleban says.
At the end of our talk, I serve him up a friendly softball media question: “What do you want readers to come away with from this column?”
In classic form, Pleban laughs and says, “Any answer I give you is going to be just as hokey as the question itself – isn’t that the answer?”
And as to how Conviction of Innocence ends, he glibly informs me I’ll have to buy it to find out. So I guess he’s still working the media – and still not really concerned if you like him or not.