Keyon Paylor was three years into a prison sentence in 2017 when the federal government asked him to help convict the cop who locked him up.
Baltimore Police Detective Daniel Hersl had been indicted for robbing citizens as a member of the Gun Trace Task Force. As part of their continuing investigation, authorities looked for additional victims and came across phone calls Paylor made to his family from jail — where he talked about money that vanished from his home when Hersl, then working in an Eastern District drug squad, arrested him.
Hersl was sentenced to 18 years in prison last week in the gun task force case. Paylor, now 26, served out his own five-year sentence. In March, he filed a request to have his conviction vacated.
He is still waiting for federal prosecutors to respond.
“It was a guilty plea that was basically coerced,” said Paylor’s attorney, Tony Balkissoon. “I think this case is extremely easy. I’m not sure why they’re dragging their feet.”
Paylor, a father of twins, says he wants his record cleared so he can begin a new life and pursue new opportunities.
“I want a fresh start,” he said. “This will open more doors for me.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland has until Sunday to file its response. Officials there declined to comment for this article.
The Gun Trace Task Force case showed officers had lied in police reports, conducted illegal searches and stolen from people they detained. With the officers’ credibility ruined, city prosecutors have dropped or reversed convictions in more than 170 cases and say they are reviewing more than 1,500 additional cases.
Federal prosecutors have cited those statistics in arguing about the damage inflicted by the corrupt unit. They note that some people have wrongly spent time in prison, but also warn that in dropping cases, guilty people are likely going free. They have vacated the federal convictions for some of the men arrested by the task force officers, but not all.
C. Justin Brown, an attorney not involved in Paylor’s case, sought to have a different federal defendant’s conviction cleared because it involved gun task force officers. He settled for time served.
“I don’t think it’s in the interest of our criminal justice system for these people to remain imprisoned when convictions are tainted,” Brown said.
Paylor said Hersl was feared in East Baltimore and harassed him long before becoming a member of the now disgraced gun unit.
“Everybody know he ain’t nobody to play with,” Paylor said. “His name ring in the neighborhoods.”
Paylor says Hersl and other officers working on the east side that day not only stole $5,000 from him, but planted the gun that sent him to federal prison.
Hersl’s defense attorney, William Purpura, said his client denies Paylor’s claims.
“There’s nothing else [Hersl] did wrong” outside of the cases he was charged with, Purpura said..“Certainly, there’s no allegation that he’s planted a gun. That’s never happened. He took money, it was wrong, and he got severely punished for that.”
The arrest that landed Paylor in federal prison occurred in January 2014. Hersl wrote in a statement of probable cause that he and other officers watched Paylor hurriedly walking down the street, looking back at police driving behind him in their unmarked car. They said Paylor jumped over walls separating several connected front porches, then reached for his waistband and removed what appeared to be a handgun. They said Paylor shoved the gun under the cushion of a chair on a porch and ran into a home.
In a call from jail, Paylor told a family member, “They didn’t see me put no gun nowhere..” He said he knew the officers were after him, his attorneys wrote in a court filing.
Paylor asked relatives to check for $5,000 he kept in a drawer and when they weren’t able to find it, he said, “I knew something was funny.”
Paylor says he was returning from a check-in with his probation officer at the time of the arrest, a visit which required him to pass through a metal detector. He had come straight home, he said.
“They said, ‘We watched you put this gun here,’” he says. “I said, ‘No way.’ ”
Paylor’s case started in state court, but was picked up by federal authorities, and he was staring down a possible sentence of 15 years.
His public defender at the time, Brendan Hurson, 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.
Hurson said he knew the only way to rebut Hersl’s assertions would be to show that Hersl had a propensity to lie. Hersl was well-known among defense attorneys, Hurson says.
“Everyone had heard from clients, and just on the street, that Hersl was a potential problem,” Hurson, who is now a public defender in the Virgin Islands, said in a recent interview. “I think in both state and federal court, attorneys were trying to get information on him. There were a lot of efforts, and not much results.”
But Hurson ultimately decided the chances of success at trial were “negligible,” and advised Paylor to plead guilty to avoid a stiffer sentence.
“In a ‘he said – she said’ contest, a convicted felon charged with possessing a firearm could not compete with a police officer when Mr. Paylor knew that juries respect police officers and find them credible as a matter of course,” Balkissoon, his current attorney, wrote in the motion to vacate Paylor’s conviction.
After uncovering the crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force, authorities began trying to find additional victims. One investigative technique was listening to recorded jail calls made by defendants, looking for candid accusations that may not have triggered formal complaints at the time.
That apparently brought Paylor to their attention. Paylor was given immunity and testified before the grand jury investigating the gun task force officers, court records show.
Paylor says he testified about standing at the bottom of the steps of his home and looking up at a member of Hersl’s squad, Sgt. John Burns, in his room, placing money into his vest. Court records show Burns arrested Paylor at least three times, and Paylor says the officers had it out for him.
Reached by phone, Burns, who is on medical leave from the police department, said department rules prohibited him from commenting. He has not been charged with any crimes.
After his grand jury testimony, prosecutors still needed Paylor to testify at trial. But he backed away, according to his attorneys, because he was “too scared of retaliation from the corrupt officers” to proceed. He told the government that he would rather serve out what was left on his sentence, which was nearing an end.
He got out last month and will remain on supervised release for the next three years. He has a job with a company that hires ex-offenders. But he knows he can do more without a federal charge on his record, which he said is perceived as a different class of criminal. He desperately wants to leave Baltimore with his family.
His experience with police, he says, has taught him “you can’t trust nobody, no matter who it is.”
“They always say police is here to protect you, and they ain’t,” he said. “I’m not saying all of them are like that, but the ones that be in these neighborhoods, these ghettos — they street people just like us. They just manage not to catch records.”