For the past 40 years, Chet Pleban has spent his days in a
courtroom talking to juries, trying to convince them that his
client was right and the opposition wrong. Many of his clients
are police officers who find themselves on the wrong side of
the law. In addition to representing people accused of criminal
acts, he also represents those who suffered serious injuries
and whose employment was wrongfully terminated. For the most
part, he has spent his career representing the underdog and
fighting big government or large corporations. Many of his
cases are high profile. He is embraced by the media and
despised by his opponents. Repeatedly, people would tell him,
“Your cases are so interesting, you should write a book.” So,
Conviction of Innocence was a three year project that he wrote
while spending the winter months in Florida away from not only
the St. Louis weather but also the demands of a busy law
practice. Prior to this work, his writing experience included
appellate briefs and court memoranda. There are those,
including some judges, who would say that is where he got his
start writing fiction.
While continuing to write during the Florida winters, Pleban
divides his time during the summer months between his home in
St. Louis where he continues in the active practice of law and
his summer home at the Lake of the Ozarks. Additionally, he
enjoys his three children, Mimi and Jake who live in Chicago,
and J.C., the oldest, who also practices law in St. Louis. In
particular, an African safari with his daughter and golf trip
to St. Andrews in Scotland with his two sons, were some of the
most enjoyable and memorable times of his life.
Congratulations for placing in the top ten in the 2014
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|Bobby Decker, a white police officer,
arrests a young black burglary suspect one chilly spring night,
but can’t explain how the suspect’s skull was fractured. The
elected prosecutor with aspirations of a judicial appointment,
claims Decker smashed his skull with a flashlight. Black
activists, still critical of that prosecutor’s recent failure to
convict a white police sergeant for the brutal beating of a
mentally challenged young man in his own home, sees this as yet
another case of police brutality and wants justice. A murder
charge is brought by an anxious, politically motivated
prosecutor before the brain autopsy is completed. In the wake of
media efforts to rekindle hostilities between the police and the
black community, the jury trial begins. How will the deadly
injury be explained by the accused officer? How will the
prosecutor prove her theory? Can a fair jury be selected in this
racially charged environment? In the end, the jurors will decide
the fate of Bobby Decker, or will they?
Word Count: 106200
Pages to Print: 367
File Format: PDF
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Conviction of Innocence
The 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift on April 23rd began like any night
in the 7th district of the St. Louis Police Department: several
peace disturbances, a traffic stop but mostly routine patrol for
ten-year Patrolman Robert Decker and his inexperienced young
partner, David Dombrowski.
Decker was grateful for the calm. Night watch in the 7th could
bring anything from premeditated homicide to a drug deal gone
bad, a random knife fight when the bars closed, a domestic
dispute that turned ugly. Summer was the worst time of year. In
the swelter of July and August, violence flared fast. But this
was a damp spring night, the air cool against his skin. He was
already looking forward to going home.
There’d been a time—five maybe six years ago—when Decker craved
action. He used to volunteer for the 11-to-7, knowing that’s
when he’d find the most crime. “That’s who I’m,” he’d tease his
worried mother. “I’m a crime fighter.” The bravado was only half
But now he was getting older—calmer, more mature, more resigned.
And a whole lot less idealistic than Dombrowski, who’d only been
on the job two years. Decker had to hide a grin every time
Dombrowski blurted, “You’re never gonna believe this one.”
Decker would. He’d seen it all. A guy’s leg shot off. A
decapitation. He’d held rape victims in his arms until their
sobs quieted. He’d tried to comfort a mother who’d just lost her
10-year-old son to a stray bullet. Bobby Decker had seen it all.
Comfort wasn’t always possible. He coped by making arrests,
nailing the bastards who were responsible. Decker felt a weird
thrill when he looked straight into the eyes of people who’d
committed heinous acts of cruelty without a flicker of remorse.
The worst of them, he thought of as something less than human—as
animals that should be kept in cages, or better yet, in graves.
Sometimes those thoughts worried him. He could still hear the
Jesuit priests who’d taught him in high school, talking about
the dignity of every human person. Was he becoming just like
those he hunted?
The worry passed fast; all he had to do was summon the memory of
a rape victim trembling convulsively, or a three-year-old whose
face was bruised and swollen from repeated beatings, or any one
of the cops, three of them, men he’d known and joked with, who’d
fallen victim while trying to stop these animals.
Tonight, though, Decker’s mind was as quiet as the streets. This
would be an easy night.
At 11:40 p.m., Decker and Dombrowski heard a call come over the
radio for Officer Jake Corbett, a 12-year veteran, and his
partner, Art Roughland, a rookie still on probation. A burglary
alarm at a pawn shop, 2540 Chippewa on the south side of the
city. Decker knew the building. It took up half the block.
Sighing, he radioed in that they’d assist.
“Thought we were going to make it through the night without any
bullshit,” he grumbled, making a U-turn on Kingshighway and
heading for Chippewa. “What kind of idiot would rob a pawn shop
in the middle of the night?” He answered his own question:
“Probably some doper, too strung out to realize pawn brokers
lock up the gold chains when they close.”
“Maybe the alarm’s just not working,” Dombrowski said.
“That’s what we’re hoping for.”
They parked next to Corbett’s marked car. He and Roughland had
“I asked if they knew anything else,” Corbett told them, keeping
his voice low. “The dispatcher said the alarm was activated by a
motion detector in the office, which is up on the second floor.”
“Why didn’t she say so earlier?” Decker asked. “The security
company ought to be the one showing up. It’s their system that’s
defective, my guess.”
False alarms happened so often his captain had once suggested,
only half joking, that they charge to answer the calls. It
really was a poor use of police time, especially on nights when
all hell was breaking loose in a different part of town.
Decker turned back to the car and grabbed his portable radio and
flashlight. It was starting to rain and, mumbling, he threw on a
police jacket. He didn’t bother with a hat. He joined Corbett,
who was dressed the same way and carrying his own flashlight.
They told their partners to stand guard and started searching
the premises, looking for any sign of activity that would have
triggered the alarm system’s motion sensor.
While Corbett checked the front door to see if it was secure,
Decker looked in the pawn shop’s display window. He saw only a
dark blur of shelves and TV sets and a slant of light, a
streetlight reflected in the front of a glass case. “The door’s
secure,” Corbett called. They listened for half a minute. No
alarm was sounding now. An engine turned over and roared,
without benefit of a muffler, a few blocks away. Silence fell
Decker gestured with his head, and they walked to the rear of
the building to check the back door and the alley. The door was
secure; the alley was quiet. They returned to the front of the
shop. As Corbett reached for his portable radio to contact the
dispatcher, intending to clear the call and report that the
building was secure, he saw what looked like a young, thin black
male silhouetted on the roof of the building. He slashed his arm
upward, shining his flashlight across the roof, and saw a figure
duck behind a five-foot wall that appeared to separate the pawn
shop roof from the roof of the company next door. Corbett told
the dispatcher and Decker what he’d seen. “How the hell did they
get up there?”
“Stay here,” Decker said. “Let me look in back again. We need to
make sure they have no way off that roof.”
Three minutes later, Decker was back. “There’s no way up—no
ladder, no fire escape—and the pawn shop windows and door are
all locked. I don’t get it.”
“We’ve got to go up there,” Corbett said, wiping rain from his
forehead. “We’re gonna need some assistance.” He called the
dispatcher again. “Get us a fire truck with an extension
Decker could still see one of the figures on the roof. “Get down
here!” he yelled. “Police!”
He expected no response, and he got none. The figure stepped
back, out of his sightline. “Hey Dombrowski,” he called. “You
two secure the back of the building. We’ll stay out here.”
Nobody was leaving.
As he stood in the light rain, squinting up at the roof, Decker
wondered what they’d find up there. How many perps? Were they
armed? Would they fire? They would if they were strung out on
drugs or booze, fearless. A cop’s worst nightmare.
“We’ve got to find a way to get up there without getting
ambushed,” he told Corbett, who just nodded. They waited, not
Finally the ladder truck pulled up. The fire department took its
sweet time responding to calls for assistance; there was no love
lost between firefighters and cops. The delay had bought Decker
time to plan, though. He had a terse conversation with the
driver, pointing to the exact place where he wanted to enter the
When the ladder was in place, Decker started up, flashlight in
hand. Corbett stayed close, less than a foot behind him. Just
below the roofline, they paused and drew their service
revolvers. Decker took the next step and slowly, carefully,
raised his head above the wall.
Quickly scanning the entire roof, he saw a large structure
jutting out of the roof. Turning and talking to the man who
stood a few rungs below him, Decker told Corbett, “It looks like
a skylight about 50 yards away that we can use for a little
cover. It’s not much, but it’s all we have. We need to move
quickly.” Both stepped onto the roof, hearts pounding, and ran
to the skylight, watching for any activity on the upper roof.
A section of the glass had been smashed. Corbett shone his
flashlight through the broken window as Decker continued to
watch the upper roof. “Here’s how they got on the roof. There is
an extension ladder they hooked onto this skylight,” Corbett
“Does this go into the pawn shop?” Decker asked in a low voice.
“Is that how they got in?”
“No, I don’t think so. Looks like some kind of garage storage
area for the welding shop.”
Corbett called for an assist. He gave the dispatcher the
information about the ladder and storage area and asked for the
location to be secured. Now they had to figure out a way to get
the suspect off of the upper roof and into handcuffs.
The building was occupied by three businesses: a muffler shop, a
welding company and the pawn shop. Each had its own skylight.
The higher roof belonged to the pawn shop. Decker looked beyond
it. To the south of the pawn shop, east of the welding company,
there was a two-story building with a second story-porch. It
wasn’t connected to either building, but it stood less than five
feet from both.
“Police! We know you are on the upper roof. Show yourself with
your hands in the air,” Decker yelled from his position behind
the skylight now some 25 yards away. No response. He waited a
few beats, then said, “There is no way out. Make this easy on
yourself. Stand up with your hands in the air.” Still no
response. “Comeoutnow.” After the third command, a head rose
above the wall dividing the roofs. Decker held his breath until
he saw the top of the suspect’s body emerge, hands out to his
sides. The guy turned to his left and started talking to
someone. Great—somebody else was with him. Decker craned, but
couldn’t see the other figure. “Remember what I said,” the guy
told his companion. “Come on. It’s okay.”
A second man stood up. He began to back away from the officers,
moving closer to the north edge of the upper roof. Decker saw
him look over the edge at the ground below. “Back away from the
edge!” Decker yelled. “Walk toward us.”
He hesitated, then came toward them, moving slowly.
“Get your ass down here!” Decker yelled. “I’m tired of standing
in the rain, and I’m not fucking around with you. Right now!”
Without looking at Corbett, he said in a low voice, “You take
the one on the left, and I’ll take the one on the right.” Then
he yelled again: “How many are up there with you?”
No answer. Both men stood on the upper roof with their arms in
the air and their eyes fixed on the officers.
“I said is there anyone else with you? Answer me!”
“No,” Corbett’s suspect replied.
As Decker and Corbett moved toward the upper roof, weapons
pointed at the suspects, Decker saw them more clearly. Both were
black males, short, 5-foot-8 or less; thin, no more than 150
pounds; young, in their late teens or early twenties and dressed
in dark clothing, no hats. “Slowly, v-e-r-y slowly, both of you
climb down from there and keep your hands where we can see
them,” he directed, shining his flashlight into the eyes of his
suspect. They shone, fierce and feral. He’s high; maybe crazy,
too, Decker thought. Expect anything.
The two suspects hoisted themselves up, so they could climb over
the wall and lower themselves to the roof below. Decker
holstered his weapon, preparing to grab and handcuff the suspect
when his feet hit the ground. But the minute their feet hit the
lower roof, the two bolted in opposite directions, separating
Corbett and Decker as they gave chase. Decker’s suspect headed
for the second-story porch. I’ve got to catch him before he hits
that porch, Decker thought. With just a few feet to spare and
flashlight still in hand, he grabbed the suspect, pushed him
into the south end of the wall, then threw him to the ground.
Corbett was still chasing his guy, who’d headed for the skylight
and the ladder they’d left there. Realizing he was going to lose
the foot race, Corbett shouted, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” The
suspect froze. “Get down on the ground and put your hands behind
your back.” He slowly went to his knees—and stayed there.
“I told you to get down on the ground and put your hands behind
your back,” Corbett yelled.
“I’m goin’, man. Don’t shoot. I don’t have no gun.” The suspect
lowered himself, face down, onto the shingles.
As he approached, Corbett holstered his gun, took out his
handcuffs and snapped them around the man’s wrists. He pulled
the man to his feet and walked him toward Decker, whose suspect
was still lying on the roof. It was raining harder now, and
Corbett could barely make out the figure’s outline. He heard
Decker telling the dispatcher, “We’re gonna need an ambulance.”
“What happened?” Corbett asked. Decker’s suspect was lying on
his back, eyes closed, his breath shallow.
“I don’t know,” Decker said, his voice shaking. “I don’t know.”
to Conviction of Innocence