Sandy Hausman Series
(by WVTF Public Radio October, / November 2013)
Watch video of Part1 to Part 5 on youtube
Part 1: Jens Soering: Back in the Spotlight (Link), October 28, 2013
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Virginia’s parole board is again considering the case of Jens Soering, a UVA honors student from Germany, convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents in 1985.
Soering has been behind bars for 27 years, but in certain circles there are persistent doubts, and his story remains in the news. In part one of our series, Sandy Hausman looks back at the case.
On March 30, 1985, police found the bodies of Derek Haysom, a retired Canadian steel executive, and his wife, Nancy Astor Haysom, in their home near Lynchburg – the place they called Loose Chippings. They had been brutally murdered.
“This is the way we found Mr. Haysom, just inside the front door, and you can see all the blood on the slate floor.”
Ricky Gardner was a newly minted detective with the Bedford County Sheriff’s office. Today, 28 years later, he pages through a notebook of photos from the crime scene.
“Mr. Haysom was stabbed 36 times. His throat was cut. And Ms. Haysom was stabbed six or seven times, and her neck was also severed.”
The couple’s 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was a student at the University of Virginia. On the weekend when her parents were killed, she said she was in Washington. She claimed to have rented a car and traveled to DC with her 18-year-old boyfriend Jens Soering. Gardner checked on that rental car and was intrigued. It had gone 669 miles.
“Charlottesville to Washington, DC to Loose Chippings, back to Washington, DC and back to Charlottesville – that’s right about 669 miles.”
In early October, Gardner met with Soering, who denied any part in the murders. A few days later, he and Elizabeth left the country. “An innocent person don’t run. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle.”
For months, they traveled in Asia and Europe before being arrested for check fraud in England. When questioned about the murders, Jens – the son of a German diplomat -- said he committed the crime, because the Haysoms disapproved of his relationship with Elizabeth.
“He knocked on the Haysom’s door and said that he was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and was on his way back to Charlottesville. He knew they hated him, but he said that he went there initially hoping to change their mind, but if not, he was prepared to kill them.”
But another story would emerge before his trial began.
“He thought that he had diplomatic immunity, that he would not be tried in the United States – that he would be sent to Germany.”
Gail Starling Marshall was a deputy attorney general in Virginia from 1986 to 1994. She says Germany is more lenient when it comes to crimes committed by young people, and there’s greater emphasis on rehabilitation. Teenaged killers can be released after only a decade, and Soering said he would gladly spend ten years behind bars to save his first lover from the electric chair.
“He was a virgin. He was a non-drinker. He was not a drug user. He was a nerd really. I think he was overwhelmed that this glamorous woman was attracted to him, and he also knew that she would be tried in Virginia – that Virginia had the death penalty, and so he thought, ‘Knight in shining armor! I can give up ten years of my life, but it’s worth it for this woman I love.’”
When Jens and Elizabeth were caught in England, he admitted the crime. Details of his confession, a diagram he drew of the crime scene, the manner in which the Haysoms' throats were cut, corresponded closely with what police had found. He was not, in fact, entitled to diplomatic protection, because his father worked at the consulate in Detroit, not the embassy in Washington. And so, in 1990, he was tried and convicted – getting two life sentences for the crime.
But Marshall, who handled one of his appeals, continues to assert his innocence, and in our next report we’ll tell you why many Germans want Soering freed.
Part 2: Jens Soering: Doubts, Politics & Possible Parole (Link), October 29, 2013
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Four years ago, then Governor Tim Kaine was talking with the Justice Department about transferring Jens Soering back to his homeland, Germany.
A jury had found the former UVA honors student guilty of killing his girlfriend’s parents in Bedford County.
Jens at first confessed to the crime, then said he did so only to protect the actual killer -- the woman he loved.
The case against Jens Soering was based on his confession to the brutal murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom, but DNA technology was not yet available to police, and there was no physical evidence that proved he was the killer.
An FBI-trained technician did compare Soering’s foot print with a bloody sock print at the Haysom’s home, but Gail Marshall, a lawyer who led Soering’s appeal, says that was pseudo-science.
“He had done overlays of Jens’ foot and the sock print, and he said there are significant correspondences. The reason it sounds semi-scientific is we think of finger prints, but that’s because there are dermal ridges on your hands, and they’re pretty unique. A sock print doesn’t have anything like that.”
In fact, looking at size, she argued the sock print was more likely left by Elizabeth.
The German public also wonders about Elizabeth’s mental health. She was the prosecution’s star witness, but one psychiatrist described her as borderline schizophrenic and a pathological liar. Karin Steinberger, an investigative reporter for one of Germany’s top newspapers, says jurors should have given more weight to the testimony of Elizabeth’s half brother – a doctor from Houston. I spoke with Steinberger at a café in Munich.
“You know her half-brother stated in court that Elizabeth always lied, and she will always lie, and I’m pretty sure she was in the house at the time of the murder.”
She was also stunned to learn that Elizabeth accused her mother of sexual abuse. Nancy Haysom, who was an artist, had even taken nude photographs of her daughter – a fact dismissed by the lead detective in the case – Ricky Gardner.
“She acknowledged that her mother had touched her and fondled her and tried to have a romantic relationship with her. You don’t think it’s significant? No, no. It’s bizarre, but it didn’t link back to the murder or anything.”
During an aggressive cross-examination, Elizabeth withdrew the charge, but Steinberger sees child abuse as a possible motive for the crime. She also discovered that within a week of the bloody Haysom murders there was another killing -- with a knife -- in Roanoke. Two individuals confessed and are in prison for that crime. Legal documents indicate one told a fellow inmate that they also killed the Haysoms, but Steinberger says no one investigated that claim.
“You know killing with knives is not very usual. It is actually very hard to kill a person with a knife. All I wonder is why nobody would bother, y’know, asking these questions. It’s 25 years ago. Why did nobody follow up on these two guys who killed somebody else with a knife – very brutally? Why did never, ever any person ask those two people?”
And finally, there are questions about the legal process. Critics in Germany are also surprised that the judge in Soering’s case was a friend of the Haysom family – that he said, publicly, that he thought Soering was guilty, even before the trial began.
Anna Utzerath, who coordinates social media for Soering in Germany, also points out that Jens was interrogated and confessed in Britain without legal counsel. “For me the most unfair moments are that Jens Soering, when he was 19 years old, was held for four days in isolation. In this time, he was not allowed to speak to his lawyer.”
Since Soering’s trial in 1990, some new information has come to light, prompting supporters in the U.S. and Germany to call for his release. We’ll look at those developments in our next report.
Part 3: Jens Soering: New Turns in Infamous Virginia Case (Link), October 30, 2013
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Since his trial in 1990, former UVA honors student Jens Soering has maintained he did not kill his girlfriend’s parents – a prominent couple from Bedford County, though initially he did confess to the crimes.
But after he was convicted, new information came out, and the German government asked Virginia to send Soering – a German citizen – home.
From the beginning, there was no physical evidence to prove Jens Soering killed Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of his girlfriend Elizabeth. Recent tests on 42 pieces of evidence from the crime scene found no DNA from Soering. And when the Chief Detective, Ricky Gardner, looked for blood in the car Jens allegedly drove, he found none.
"We did a luminal of the car. Luminal reacts to dried blood or invisible blood, and there was no sign of any blood in the car. Had there been just a minute spot of blood or whatever, the luminal would have still showed up for that."
Soering offered a simple explanation: Elizabeth committed the crime with help from another man and another vehicle. In 2011 the owner of a Bedford County transmission shop – Tony Buchanan – came forward to tell of a car dropped off at his shop shortly after the Haysom murders. When he got to work on Monday, he called the towing company.
“And they said they had towed it in from the woods somewhere – two college kids. Now when the car came in – the mechanics, they come to me and told me to look at what they’d seen in the car. That’s when I went and looked. The floor mat was full of dried blood, and between the seat and the console was a knife laying down in there. Me being a hunter, I thought somebody had been up there spotlighting a deer and then shot him and put him on the floorboard, so we didn’t pay no more attention to it until this picture came out in the paper.”
He holds an article about the Haysom murders, with a photo of Elizabeth. Buchanan says she is definitely the woman who retrieved the car. He remembers her, because it took a while for her credit card payment to clear.
“The card was rejected. She got on the phone and talked to them at the bank. She got off and said she was going to call somebody, and she called somebody in Florida. About thirty minutes later I put the card in and it went through alright.”
But the other person pictured in that newspaper article – Jens Soering – looked nothing like the man who had accompanied the woman who picked up the car. Buchanan figured police had the matter under control, but years later he learned that Elizabeth’s uncle lived in Florida, and he thought maybe he should report what he’d seen. Buchanan claims he called Detective Gardner, but Gardner says he didn’t get the message and doubts the story.
“If you lived around Lynchburg, Virginia from 1985 to 1990, you knew about the Haysom case. I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody asking about the Haysom case. Now he wants to come out with this revelation. I don’t know what his motivation is, but I don’t believe a word of that.”
Nor does he worry about a fingerprint found on a glass at the crime scene – a print that has never been identified.
His supporters believe such details should lead to a new investigation – or maybe a new trial for Soering, but Virginia has something called the 21-day rule. With the exception of evidence that clearly proves innocence – like DNA -- new information can only be considered if it’s submitted within 21 days of a conviction. Gail Marshall is a former deputy attorney general who reviewed the case for the Soering family and filed an appeal.
“Every state has some kind of rule that enough is enough. After we’ve looked at it and looked at it, we have to have some finality to judgments. The question is what is the proper balance between finality and making sure that you’re not convicting an innocent person.”
In our next report, we’ll look at efforts by Germans and Americans to have Soering paroled and tell you why that could happen soon.
Part 4: Jens Soering: Politics & Diplomacy Could Set Him Free (Link), November 1, 2013
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The Virginia Parole Board has, again, refused to release Jens Soering, a former honors student from the University of Virginia, convicted of killing his girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom’s parents with a knife.
She is also behind bars as an accomplice to the gruesome crime. Both have been model prisoners, and both are eligible for parole or a pardon from the governor.
Pressure from Soering’s homeland, Germany, is building, and some prominent people here in Virginia question his guilt.
Bernadette Faber teaches middle school in a small German city near Spangdahlem Air Base. Since 2007, she’s devoted much of her spare time and energy to the case of Jens Soering. “More than six years ago, in 2007, I saw one of the first German TV reports about the case. I was shocked about the terribly long incarceration of Jens in light of all these doubts of his guilt and was horrified about a justice system which doesn’t give him an opportunity for a retrial.”
She and a friend, actress Anna Utzerath, come to Virginia yearly to meet with Soering and his supporters. In Germany, they founded a group called Friends of Jens, organizing online. He now has 4,000 friends on Facebook, and about 3,000 people have written to President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other officials who could arrange for Soering to be sent back to Germany.
A prominent intellectual once imprisoned in East Germany has joined the cause. Dr. Wolfgang Welsch questions a previous parole board claim that the community would be endangered if Jens were released.
“That’s what Americans call bull. Jens Soering should have been extradited to Germany immediately. He would present no risk to the community.”
This week, when it denied Seoring parole, the board did not mention risk to the community – although it did suggest release of Elizabeth Haysom might be a danger to the public.
The Soering case has received tremendous media attention in Germany, has inspired a stage play, and next year, German theaters will screen The Promise -- a documentary on the subject.
WVTF and RadioIQ tried to verify that claim, digging through a chaotic collection of evidence at the Bedford County Courthouse. Legal documents, reports on body fluids, photographs of the crime scene and love letters were randomly stored in cardboard boxes, bags and envelopes. When we came across several cassette tapes which likely contained Soering’s confession, the county clerk – Cathy Hogan -- refused to let us hear them, arguing they might break.
Former Deputy Attorney General Gail Marshall believes Bedford County is still protecting the prominent Haysom family, and jurors from neighboring Amherst County were doing so when they convicted a young German student of a crime he may not have committed. "The people in Bedford had a choice between deciding whether it was one of their own or whether it was a foreigner. Given the choice, you’d much rather find it was a stranger than your own child. "
When the Soering family asked Marshall to review the case and lead an appeal, she concluded Soering was not guilty. “It’s not the way most anybody who’s not under the control of drugs or intense mental hatred would go about doing away with somebody.”
On the other hand, she points out that Elizabeth was an admitted drug user who wrote letters attacking her parents and wishing them dead. Marshall’s arguments persuaded Tom Elliott, a deacon in the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, DC. He’s known prison inmate Jens Soering since 2005, and cannot see him at the crime scene.
“The wounds and everything about that scene implies that it was someone with rage. I’ve never seen that kind of rage. He has an impeccable record in the system.”
In our final report, we’ll look at diplomatic efforts to get Soering out of the Buckingham Correctional Center, and tell you why politics in Virginia could lead to parole.
Part 5: Why a Convicted Killer Could Be Paroled (Link), November 3, 2013
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When former Governor Tim Kaine approved the transfer of a German national from the Buckingham Correctional Center to his homeland four years ago, his political opponents were furious, and as soon as he took office, Governor Bob McDonnell blocked the deal.
The prisoner was Jens Soering, a University of Virginia honors student, convicted in the brutal murder of his girlfriend’s parents when he was 18. During the current campaign for governor neither candidate has mentioned Soering, the prisoner’s future could depend on who is elected.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Obama earlier this year, constituents asked her to raise the subject of extradition for Jens Soering. While he was convicted by a jury in Virginia, plenty of people in Germany think Soering is innocent. Among them, Anna Utzerath, who helped found a group called Friends of Jens.
“Ultimately, he is a German citizen who belongs to Germany, and the German federal government wants to have him here based on an international trade agreement between the U.S.A. and Germany.”
Soering is eligible for parole, and 150 members of the German Parliament have signed a petition asking that he be released. Many wrote to Governor Bob McDonnel to press their demand, but MP Christophe Straesser says he didn’t respond. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get any answer, and this is not a very good signal for the cooperation between two states that are good friends.”
As governor, Democrat Tim Kaine was willing to transfer Soering to Germany at the request of the Obama administration – arguing the German prison system should pay the price of keeping him locked up, but Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli attacked the decision in an interview with NBC TV in Richmond.
“I don’t think Tim Kaine has ever adequately explained what on Earth he was thinking! This guy stabbed to death his girlfriend’s parents – both UVA Professors if I remember correctly.”
In fact, the Haysoms had nothing to do with UVA, but Cuccinelli pressed on – scoffing at a German promise to keep Soering in custody for at least two more years.
“They get downright confused in America when you say he’d have been out in two and a half years. This is a double murderer who got a life sentence.”
German lawmaker Christoph Straesser says Jens had already served more than twenty years, and in his country, which puts greater emphasis on rehabilitation than retribution, that may be long enough.
“Yes, if he has been involved in a murder or some other big crime, he has to get punished, but you can’t reproduce the life of the people who were killed.”
In his time behind bars, Soering has not broken a single rule. He’s published nine books on theology and prison reform, but he had no hope that a parole board appointed by Governor McDonnell would release him.
“This current parole board has a parole grant rate of two percent, which means that 98% of the prisoners are denied parole, and last year they actually denied me parole 11 days before the board hearing.”
For Soering and his supporters, that is a campaign issue.
“We live in a democracy here. That means that the voters bear some responsibility for what their government does.”
We asked campaign staffers to find out if Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli would favor parole for Soering but received no response. Based on his past remarks, Cuccinelli would not, but McAuliffe might, and he would have a chance to appoint a new parole board – one that could be more lenient. President Obama – anxious to repair damaged relations with Germany – might ask Virginia again to send Soering back.
If that happens, you can expect the man who helped put Jens Soering away, Bedford County Detective Ricky Gardner, to be furious.
“If anybody is to be paroled it’s Elizabeth. She testified against him. Doesn’t whine and cry, and this and that. Oh woe with me, and we didn’t do it, and all this kind of stuff. He shouldn’t get any kind of a break and her not.”
That said, a more liberal parole board might also look at Elizabeth Haysom’s clean record in prison and opt to release her too.
Sandy Hausman's full interview (17 minutes) with Jens Soering, by telephone
10. April 2019