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False Confessions

(by Lisa Ferrari, November 2, 2006, Part 1 / Part 2)

Part 1

Why would someone who is innocent confess to a crime, especially a crime as horrific as murder?

A former UVa honor student locked away in a Virginia state prison for a gruesome double murder says his confession was all a lie, a story he made up to save the woman he loved.

“No, I did not kill Derek and Nancy Haysom,” said Jens Soering, who was convicted of the crime in 1990.

So, why did the former University of Virginia honor student confess to the brutal double murders in 1987? He says he did it to save his then girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom from a punishment he could not fathom.

“On the night the [crimes were committed] I made the decision to take the blame for what my girlfriend had done under the mistaken belief it turns out, that I would have a limited form of diplomatic immunity,” said Soering during a recent in prison interview.

It turns out, Jens’ father, a German diplomat, did not have the right credentials for immunity.

“I thought that 10 years in a German prison was an acceptable price to pay to save the life of the woman I loved,” said Soering.

Instead, he is paying with two life sentences at a Virginia state prison. Yet Soering said his hands never touched the knife that slashed his girlfriend’s parents, Nancy and Derek Haysom to death in March 1985. It was one of the most horrific crimes Bedford County and the state of Virginia has ever seen.

“The police asked me if I did it and I confessed and they accepted it with very good reasons not to believe me,” said Soering.

There were inconsistencies in his statement.

“Mrs. Haysom did not wear the clothes that I described her as wearing. The position of Mr. Haysom's body and that scene could not have happened as I described it. The murder weapon, I claimed that I brought a knife with me and threw it away in a Dipsty dumpster down the road, but it turns out, the actual murder weapon is a steak knife with blood on it found at the crime scene,” Soering told us.

Plus, there was no hard evidence indicating Soering was even at the scene, said his former attorney and former Virginia Deputy Attorney General Gail Starling Marshall.

“His blood type is the same as 45% of the population, and there was a hair found there that was found not to be Jens’, [but] never tested to whether it was Elizabeth’s,” said Marshall.

Soering also claims there were many unidentified finger prints, that a bloody sock print was far too small to be his and that the nature of the wounds indicated there were two killers.

“It’s just too slim, too slim it seems to me, for what it is, two life sentences?” said Marshall.

We may never know for sure. Soering has exhausted all appeals and with no DNA testing in the 80’s all samples found at the scene have since been destroyed.

 “Looking back now with more than half my life now spent in prison, it’s very clear to me now that the right thing to do would have been to tell the truth,” said Soering.

Soering's then girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, isn't backing up his story. She pleaded guilty in 1987 to helping plan the murders, but denied participating in the killings. She's serving the remainder of a 90-year sentence at the Fluvanna County Correctional Institute for Women and is now eligible for parole.

Part 2

When news broke John Mark Karr lied about killing Jon Benet Ramsey, many wondered what would make someone falsely confess to such a brutal crime? Yet defense experts say false confessions happen more often than you think.

“When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, there were 600 false confessions,” said Charlottesville Defense Attorney Steven Rosenfield.

Some people falsely confess for fame, while others confess to protect the real criminal. Former UVa honor student Jens Soering said that's what he was doing when he told police he killed his girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom's parents in 1985.

“In some sort of very teenaged part of my mind I saw myself basically being the hero for my girlfriend,” Soering told us.

That is until prospectors threatened the death penalty then he recanted his confession.

That's another reason defense attorneys say people falsely confess, is to avoid execution or life sentences.

Attorney Steven Rosenfeild said that's what his client Robert Davis did. Davis confessed to killing a Crozet mom and her infant son after a long night of interrogation.

“Robert pleaded and pleaded [with investigators] to be given a chance to sleep. 'Take me to jail so I can get some rest.' The interrogation continued and Robert gave a confession of facts, some of which were fed by [an] interrogating police officer,” said Rosenfield.

Another one of Rosenfield's client's, Earl Washington Jr., falsely confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper woman.

“Mentally retarded people are extremely adept at picking up body language and guessing correctly at what you want to hear,” said Attorney Gail Starling Marshall.

Couple that with a certain amount of police pressure and, “Earl basically regurgitated what police had fed him. Earl knew no facts of this murder in Culpeper because he wasn't there,” Rosenfield explained.

Gail Starling Marshall was the Virginia Deputy Attorney General who reviewed Washington’s case for the state, and the first prosecutor to believe him innocent.

“I became convinced that he did not do it,” said Marshall.

Washington came within hours of being executed and DNA evidence proved he did not do it.

According to studies, one half of one percent of all people found guilty have made a false confession.

“On the surface it appears to be a small number, but when you multiply that by the tens of thousands who are found guilty every year across America you are looking at thousands of innocent people who falsely confess who are in prison in Virginia and elsewhere,” said Rosenfield.

Earl Washington spent 19 years in prison. Jen Seoring is serving two life sentences. Robert Davis is serving 23 years in prison. Of these three men, only Washington has been cleared. Prosecutors believe the other two men are guilty as charged.

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