When federal authorities investigating corruption by members of an elite Baltimore Police task force were looking for victims, they sought out people who had asserted their innocence in private jail phone calls and conversations with their defense attorneys.
Keyon Paylor was one of those people, and prosecutors took him before a grand jury to outline his allegations that Det. Daniel Hersl and other officers had planted a gun on him and stolen money from his bedroom. Hersl is now serving 18 years in federal prison after being convicted by a jury of racketeering.
Paylor said the officers framed him and has waged an 18-month federal court fight to clear his record.
“I want a fresh start,” he said in an interview last year. “This will open more doors for me.”
But in an opinion unsealed this week, a federal judge denied Paylor’s request to have his conviction overturned, finding that his decision to plead guilty in 2015 — which he says was made under duress — overrides information that has since come to light about Hersl’s corruption.
Quoting a Supreme Court decision, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander said: “'A guilty plea is a grave and solemn act ...' And I cannot ignore the sanctity of an oath to tell the truth."
“To be sure, the allegations of police misconduct by members of the BPD are extremely disturbing," Hollander wrote. "But, the allegation that Paylor was framed, and his claim of theft of money from his home, do not undermine the facts as to Paylor’s unlawful possession of the loaded gun, which he admitted under oath.”
Like many arrested by corrupt officers, Paylor has said he took a plea because he had no way to disprove the officers’ account, and the court or a jury would be unlikely to believe him over the word of an officer.
Paylor’s attorney, Gayle Horn of Chicago, has filed notice of an appeal. She did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun.
Paylor, 27, had been waiting for Hollander’s decision since March 2018, when he filed his petition for postconviction relief. He served out his five-year federal prison sentence in May 2018.
Paylor’s case has been taken up by attorneys from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, including attorneys from a Chicago-based law firm that won a $15 million jury verdict in Baltimore federal court for a wrongful murder conviction.
The Gun Trace Task Force case showed officers lied in police reports, conducted illegal searches and stole from people they detained. With the officers’ credibility ruined, city prosecutors have moved to drop or reverse convictions in hundreds of cases.
There are far fewer cases involving the officers that made their way to federal court, where prosecutors overturned the conviction of two men who had drugs planted on them, and moved to cut short the sentences of others while keeping their convictions intact.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, referring a reporter to their filings in the case, many of which were filed under seal.
Hersl, now incarcerated in a federal prison in Missouri, continues to deny charges against him. He was one of two officers charged in the case to take the case to trial, and he has since written letters to a state commission investigating the scandal in which he says he was in a “Serpico position” of being a good officer working with dirty cops.
Hersl had one of the worst reputations among the officers charged, with a trail of lawsuit settlements and internal affairs complaints over his career.
Paylor said he was returning from a check-in with his probation officer at the time of the arrest, a visit that required him to pass through a metal detector. He came straight home, he said.
“They said, ‘We watched you put this gun here,’” he says. “I said, ‘No way.’”
His public defender at the time sought to impeach Hersl’s credibility by trying to obtain the lengthy history of complaints about him that reached the Baltimore Police Department’s internal affairs unit. But the attorney ultimately decided the chances of success at trial were “negligible,” and advised Paylor to plead guilty to avoid a stiffer sentence.
But the government said in opposing Paylor’s request that he did “not present any new evidence of police misconduct in this case.”
Hollander, in her opinion last month, said Paylor had made a “calculated decision to negotiate a favorable plea deal that substantially limited his period of incarceration.”
At a hearing earlier this year, Hollander had wondered aloud whether she had turned over enough of Hersl’s disciplinary files to the public defender as Paylor was fighting the case. She also spoke about the uphill battle Paylor had faced getting anyone to hear his side of the story.
“We have to talk reality: We have a young man with a record,” Hollander said in March. “He continued to believe he had been framed, but was anyone going to believe him? … How was he going to convince anyone to believe him over a law enforcement officer?”
In Hollander’s unsealed opinion, she said: “There is no extrinsic, independent evidence that Hersl engaged in misconduct that tainted Paylor’s prosecution."