Prisoner reflects on ruined lives
Convicted killer awaits word from parole board
(by Liesel Nowak, Daily Progress staff write, August 15, 2003)
Nineteen years ago, as an incoming freshman at the University of Virginia, Jens Soering was primed for a bright future. Accepted into the elite Jefferson and Echols scholarship programs at one of the nation's top universities, the bookish teenager and son of a German diplomat was supposed to springboard out of tiny Charlottesville into a life of worldly success.
Instead, Soering has spent the past 17 years of his life behind bars.
Today, he bears little resemblance to the baby-faced young man made famous during his high-profile trial on two counts of first-degree murder. The 36-year-old jogs and lifts weights religiously at the recreation facility of Brunswick Correctional Center, and his blue prison shirt hangs loosely on his lean frame. Small, round wire-rim glasses have replaced the chunky brown spectacles of his youth.
Once a dabbler in Buddhism, Soering converted to Catholicism in 1994 and says he uses religion as his prison escape. He has had articles on topics ranging from Paul's epistle to Philemon to the book of Acts published in spiritual journals, 17 just last year. In October, Soering's 350-page book on centering prayer, a Christian meditative healing practice, will go on sale.
By then, he could be a free man. For the first time since he was arrested in the 1985 slaying of his girlfriend's parents, Soering has a chance to be released. He was interviewed by a member of the Virginia Parole Board last month, and the panel will meet with one of his supporters today. A decision is expected this month.
Soering had hoped to study psychology at UVa. Now, he uses what he learned to serve as his own lawyer, drafting legal arguments for early release. The intelligence that earned him scholarships is now used to write court briefs arguing for a new trial.
Soering seems despondent about having squandered his academic career. He says in the years spent incarcerated, his mind has "atrophied, slowed down." He even mostly stopped reading and, having missed the explosion of the Internet, is intimidated by computers.
"It's been painful in some ways," Soering said. "I haven't been able to develop the gift that I had."
If paroled, Soering would be deported to Germany, where he is a citizen. He said he would continue to write about Christianity, prison reform and the nature of punishment in society.
The chances of being released, Soering acknowledges, are slim. But he still has hope.
"I am not going to close myself off to the possibility of a miracle. And I think that's what it would take," Soering said. "The parole board, I hope, would see an opportunity here to make a statement about what the purpose of prison really is."
Soering believes he should be released. Having never committed an infraction in his 17 years behind bars, he has earned a home in the honors building of the prison with 200 other well-behaved inmates. He even represents prisoners charged with infractions in the correctional center's disciplinary process.
"Clearly, I am rehabilitated," Soering said recently, sitting at a small table in one of the prison's cinder-block interview rooms.
Yet Soering maintains his innocence in the killings of Derek and Nancy Haysom, the influential parents of his troubled girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom.
Haysom, an unusually pretty fellow Echols scholar at UVa, confessed to being an accessory to her parents' murder. On a Saturday night, March 30, 1985, the couple were stabbed to death and essentially decapitated in their Bedford County home.
Haysom and Soering went on the lam, traveling the world for more than a year after the killings. They were eventually arrested on check-fraud charges in London.
After American investigators showed her the gruesome photos of the crime scene, Haysom confessed to having put Soering up to the murders because her parents had disapproved of their relationship. In 1990, she was the prosecution's star witness against Soering at trial, where he recanted his confessions and pointed to Haysom as the killer.
"I was in 'save Lizzie' mode," Soering said of the five times he confessed to investigators. He was protecting his girlfriend from the death penalty, he claims, and he believed that he would be tried in Germany as a juvenile and son of a diplomat.
Police, and eventually a jury, believed Haysom.
Haysom is serving a 90-year sentence in the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and has issued a blanket refusal to talk to the media.
Expressions of remorse
Soering was handed two life sentences. Though he maintains his innocence, he talks of remorse over his involvement in the crime and for his confessions to the killing. Soering says he regrets the pain he caused the Haysom family and his own family and also having shamed the university where he spent "one good semester."
"UVa was good to me. I was not good to UVa," Soering said. "I'm sorry for the embarrassment I caused. I wish I had done something different."
Soering said that understanding why he confessed to a crime he didn't commit requires a study in his own troubled teenage psyche, including his tendency as a young man to act as "caretaker" to the women in his life: first, his alcoholic mother and then Elizabeth, a heroin addict terrified of her own parents.
"What had initially attracted to me to Elizabeth was that she had suffered, as an addict and a runaway, and yet had survived and even prospered: an absolute classic, textbook case of a caretaker finding a >victim to rescue<," Soering wrote to the parole board. "I thought I was 'saving' not only the most popular, exciting and unusual girl in our dormitory, but helping a true genius achieve her potential."
Usually talkative, Soering is at first silent when the subject of his mother comes up. She died in 1997 as a result of her alcoholism, which became worse, Soering said, when he went to prison.
"I loved her very much," Soering said. "I didn't kill Derek and Nancy Haysom, but I killed my mother. She drank herself to death because of me."
For years, Soering has pursued a new trial and has so far been rejected. Last month, he filed another appeal arguing that the judge in the case should have recused himself. The appeal was denied on the state level and is being considered in federal district court.
While Bedford investigators maintain their belief in Soering's guilt, Gail Starling Marshall, a former Virginia deputy attorney general, insists that justice was not served in the Haysom murders.
At trial, the prosecution lacked eyewitnesses, fingerprints, DNA and a weapon, Marshall argues in a letter to the parole board, and the arrogant demeanor of a "smart aleck German kid" did not make for a sympathetic witness.
"On top of this, the jury had to disbelieve Elizabeth Haysom, the local girl from a prominent and well-known Lynchburg family, who now appeared contrite and tearful on the stand," Marshall wrote. "It is well established, too, that the murder of a parent by his or her own child is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable to us. Clearly, the jury chose a verdict that did not require them to go down that difficult path."
While he waits for the parole board's decision, Soering, a meticulous collector of his court filings and of countless articles written about his case, will continue to reach out to the world with words.
He points out that there are more than 2 million people in prison in the United States, giving the country the dubious distinction of incarcerating a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world.
If he is not released, Soering said, he is prepared to write another book from prison about society's views toward punishment. He says it's what he's meant to do, unless his life, from college freshman to prison inmate, is "one sick joke."
"This isn't about me, this is about 2 1/2 million other prisoners," he said. "Maybe they need a voice. Maybe that's what God wants me to do."