Clemency denied for author serving double life sentence
(by Bill Sizemore, The Virginian-Pilot, July 13, 2009)
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has denied a clemency request from Jens Soering, the honor student turned prison author serving a double life sentence for killing his girlfriend's parents in 1985.
Soering's petition for transfer to his native Germany also has been denied.
Soering, who has long proclaimed innocence in the sensational case, has attracted prominent supporters such as the Most Rev. Walter Sullivan, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to the United States.
Soering is the son of a retired German diplomat. He and his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, both honor students at the University of Virginia, made international headlines when they fled to Europe in the wake of the bloody murders.
Haysom's parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, a prominent Lynchburg couple, were slashed and stabbed repeatedly and nearly decapitated.
Soering later said he falsely confessed to the murders, after the two young lovers were arrested in London, to save his girlfriend from the electric chair.
"A knight in shining armor, sacrificing myself for her. That's how I saw myself," he said in a 2007 interview.
By the time they went on trial, each blamed the other for the slayings. Haysom pleaded guilty as an accessory to murder and testified against Soering. She is serving a 90-year sentence.
There was little physical evidence in the case. Soering's conviction was based largely on his confession and Haysom's testimony. There appears to be little or no chance of exoneration on the basis of DNA evidence.
Soering, now 42, has been behind bars 23 years. He has written five books and dozens of articles on religion and prison reform. His latest book, "A Day in the Life of 179212," his first in his native German, was published last year.
The issue of guilt or innocence aside, Soering's spotless prison record and prolific literary output make a strong case for clemency or transfer to Germany, he and his supporters argued.
Transfer to Germany - made possible by a 1983 treaty - would have made it likely that Soering would be freed within a few years. Criminal sentences in Germany are shorter than in the United States.
Germany agreed to Soering's transfer, but the Virginia Department of Corrections blocked it.
Soering learned of his latest rejection, for clemency, in a letter last month.
"Executive clemency is granted only in extraordinary circumstances," the letter read. "You are encouraged to continue to build a strong record as a good citizen." He can reapply in two years.
Through a spokesman, Kaine declined to discuss his reasons for the denial.
Soering also is eligible for parole because he was convicted before Virginia abolished parole in 1995. But it is rare, especially for inmates serving life sentences. Soering has been turned down four times.
Even while proclaiming his innocence, Soering has expressed remorse for helping to cover up the Haysom murders. He also says his conversion to Christianity in prison has helped him come to see that he bears a degree of moral guilt for the slayings - that he possibly could have prevented the crime by encouraging his girlfriend to seek professional counseling.
Two psychiatrists who examined Haysom diagnosed her as a borderline schizophrenic and pathological liar.
Soering reacted to his latest setbacks with a sense of hopelessness.
"This has really crushed me, destroyed me on several levels," he wrote in a letter from Brunswick Correctional Center, where he is incarcerated. "Not only have I lost all hope for myself, but in a way all of my work has turned to ashes, too. My books are about building bridges, overcoming pain and hatred, reconciliation, loving your enemies. But now I see that my books are bridges to nowhere, that 'loving your enemies' and 'second chances' are only empty phrases for political speeches."