Life focused on winning freedom
Former U.Va. scholar insists, "I didn't do it"
(by Carlos Santos, Richmond Times-Dispatch Staff Writer, March 24, 1996)
After 9 years, 10 months and a handful of days in a maximum security prison, Jens Soering focuses his bleak life on staying healthy and winning his freedom. He starts each day by climbing down from the top bunk of his cell in the protective custody section of Keen Mountain Correctional Center and doing push-ups on the concrete floor. He does 500 or so a day. When the weather is good and prisoners are allowed out, he jogs the perimeter of the small, fenced basketball court. He runs eight miles each time, sometimes until his ankles hurt. He tries to eat healthy foods, sometimes buying cigarettes to swap with other inmates for vegetables. He weighs exactly 150 1/2 pounds, down about 40 pounds from the pudgy youth convicted of commiting a gruesome double murder 11 years ago. Now he is almost 30.
"Everybody in here loses their mind to something," said Soering, a former University of Virginia Jefferson Scholar with a genius IQ. "All of us in here, all of us, after a few years are screwy. . . . My little insanity is keeping healthy."
His other passion is proclaiming his innocence - on the Internet, to reporters and to the courts through appeals that have gone on since his conviction for the March 1985 murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom.
"I've been telling anybody who will listen. I didn't do it. That's the truth," Soering said. "Am I suppose to lie back and accept this?"
After all these years, he still gets emotional when he thinks about the crime and his punishment.
"I torture myself for my own masochistic amusement sometimes about it. I was supposed to be this genius. . . . I should have been able to handle that night,'' he said. "It eats me up every day. Every day I wake up to these walls."
Sgt. Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County Sheriff's Department was the lead investigator in the Haysom murders. He shakes his head over Soering's claims of innocence.
"He can say what he wants. But there's just no doubt," said Gardner, one of a team of investigators Soering once described as "local yokels."
"I can't say I wish him well," Gardner said. "But I can't say I blame him for trying."
The crime got international attention. The victims and the killer were natural headline grabbers, the regal Haysoms and the brilliant Soering. This was murder dished up with manners and breeding.
The Haysoms were "so urbane, when they walked into the room, you straightened your backbone and became as witty and charming as they were," one acquaintance recalled at Soering's trial.
Soering, a German national and son of a German diplomat, was chosen from 4,000 first-year U.Va. students as one of 16 Jefferson Scholars. That meant a free college education. His girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, the daughter of the slain couple, was also attending U.Va. on an academic scholarship. She was troubled, intelligent and beautiful in an unconventional way.
When the Haysoms were killed on a Saturday night at their Bedford County home, called Loose Chippings, they were both drunk. They had apparently been sitting at the dining room table with the killer. Mr. Haysom, 71, had been eating ice cream. Mrs. Haysom, 52, had just finished a painting. The crime scene photos are grisly. The murderer hacked at their necks with a single-edged knife, nearly decapitating them.
The police turned their attention to Elizabeth Haysom and Soering when they fled to Europe eight months after the murders. They were eventually captured by British authorities, who first arrested them on check fraud charges.
Haysom, a wan, theatrical woman, pleaded guilty in Bedford County Circuit Court as an accessory to the murders. She is serving a 90-year sentence in the state's prison for women in Goochland County. She was denied parole in May. She refused to comment for this report.
Soering unsuccessfully fought extradition to the United States from England. In a three-week trial televised from Bedford, he was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. His first parole hearing is in 2003.
Soering has tried every avenue to proclaim his innocence. Friends put the book he typed in prison, "Mortal Thoughts," on the Internet last summer. The book details how he and Haysom met and fell in love. It also details his version of how the murders occurred.
At his trial, Haysom testified for the prosecution. She said she waited in a Washington, D.C., hotel room the night of the murders while Soering - at her urging - drove to Bedford County and confronted the Haysoms. She said her parents wanted to end their relationship and Soering, in his rage, killed them.
Soering confessed to police, in various ways at various times, that he did kill the Haysoms. But he said at his trial, and still maintains, that he made it all up to protect Elizabeth - the woman he loved beyond reason - from the death penalty. He believed that, as the son of a German diplomat, he had diplomatic immunity. Like a bad movie plot, Soering claimed he was a fall guy for a smooth-talking woman.
The love between Soering and Haysom soured long ago. He said he has not had any contact with her in about nine years, since her last letter in 1987. "My first real girlfriend turned out to be a psychopath," he said.
Soering said he waited in Washington while Haysom, possibly with an accomplice, drove to Bedford to kill her parents. "It was monumental stupidity," he says of his confessions. "I served myself up on a plate."
Here is a sampling of one of five statements Soering made implicating himself in the murder. This one was tape-recorded by a German prosecutor in December of 1986.
"The more I tried to say something, the more (Mr. and Mrs. Haysom) talked and louder. Something was said and they flew off the handle. I had only one instinct, I wanted out. Mr. Haysom got up and pushed me against the wall. He yelled, `Sit down, young man,' or something. I fell against the wall and bumped my head . . . I came away from the wall with a tremendous rage. The next thing I remember is I stood behind Mr. Haysom and blood ran down my hand."
Soering said Mrs. Haysom screamed and attacked him with a steak knife. He fought to disarm her, cutting her throat as Mr. Haysom came at him.
"He still had an incredible strength . . . He boxed my head; my glasses flew off. I couldn't see anything. There was quite a lot of blood on the floor. The three of us were slipping and getting back up."
Now Soering says he made up the story based on details fed him by Elizabeth Haysom. "I did a really, really good job of putting myself in prison. . . . My mouth put me here."
He said he and Haysom seldom talked about the crime, calling it "our little nasty."
Soering wrote a statement to explain why he confessed. "I can understand how my story-telling talents persuaded some people of my guilt," it said. "What I failed to understand is people who never loved anyone enough to even imagine sacrificing themselves for their loved ones. Mothers run into burning building to rescue their babies, fathers go to war to fight for their children's future, and I confessed to a crime I did not commit to save Elizabeth from the electric chair."
Gardner said he believes Soering's confessions were genuine. "He told the same stories each time," the detective said.
His father, Klaus, is stationed in Papua, New Guinea, as an acting ambassador for Germany. He said he believes in his son's innocence, as do Soering's mother and brother, a soon-to-be lawyer in Germany.
Soering has a few friends, from his days at a prep school in Atlanta, in his corner. One of them put his book on the Internet.
Gail Starling Marshall, an Orange County lawyer handling Soering's appeals, also thinks he is innocent. Marshall, who graduated from U.Va. law school in 1968, was an assistant attorney general for Virginia from 1986 to 1994 and is now an adjunct law professor at U.Va.
"I have a really, really strong gut instinct on this," she said. She took Soering's case, offering a reduced fee, at the request of a mutual friend. "He was a nerd. He was a bookworm. He was an intellectual," she said. "The action was completely incompatible with his character. Look at the evidence. It was so thin."
A 12-person jury, after listening to 10 days of evidence, took less than four hours to find Soering guilty.
In addition to the confessions, Gardner said the evidence included Soering's refusal to give blood and footprint samples to police before his arrest, his flight to Europe, letters in which he and Haysom talked about her parents dying, and her testimony against him.
At the crime scene, police found samples of type O blood, a type Soering shares with 45 percent of the population. The victims' blood types were AB and A. Elizabeth Haysom's is B.
In support of his innocence, Soering claims:
The sockprint was crucial. One juror, Jake Bibb, signed an affidavit last year in which he said the jury was initially evenly split between guilt and innocence. "Had it not been for the sockprint and the testimony concerning it, I for one would have found it more difficult, if not impossible, to place him at the scene of the crime," Bibb said.
Soering is hopeful that his constitutional appeals will bring him a new trial and a chance to get out of prison. "I miss human warmth and contact more than anything . . . prison deadens you," he said. Even in his dreams, Soering said he can't escape. "I dream about prison. A dream can start out regular. You'll be walking down the street and then there are bars everywhere. You can never leave this place."
He reads a lot, though his complete works of Shakespeare were taken when he moved from the Mecklenburg prison to Keen Mountain in Buchanan County. Now he's the prison librarian. Soering said he spends most of his time reading religion and philosophy.
Throughout his trial, Soering showed almost no emotion. Now, even in brief conversations, he is at one moment assertive, then sarcastic, then thoughtful, then despairing.
But he said he doesn't hate Elizabeth Haysom. "She's in a really dark spiritual place. Her parents are dead. I've destroyed my life. I've hurt a lot of people very badly, especially my family," he said.
"I'm so sorry."
Interview lasted weeks in series of phone calls
Jens Soering was interviewed over several weeks in a series of 15-minute telephone calls. Prisoners cannot receive calls. The prison telephone system allows prisoners to call collect but cuts them off after 15 minutes. A request to interview Soering in prison was turned down by the Department of Corrections.
"Please understand that the presence of outsiders, photographers and reporters distracts prison staff from dealing with other more important priorities," Ronald J. Angelone, director of the department, wrote in reponse to the request from the Times-Dispatch. "I also do not believe in providing inmates a platform on which to profess their innocence."
Prisoners are allowed to communicate with reporters by letter or by telephone. Reporters may meet with inmates during visiting hours, if placed on an approved list by the inmate, but they may not bring notebooks, pens or cameras.
Corrections spokeswoman Amy Miller said officials had been flooded with requests for prison interviews, and action to reduce the number approved began last summer. She said there was no total ban on face-to-face interviews. "We review the requests on a case-by-case basis," she said.
The Virginia Senate recently rejected a bill guaranteeing reporters access to prison inmates who want to be interviewed. Democratic proponents argued that the Republican administration made media access to prisoners difficult. The bill's critics contended it would open the door to jailhouse news conferences and jeopardize prison security.