It’s been more than 25 years since the Commonwealth of Virginia put a German citizen in prison for killing a Bedford County couple – his girlfriend’s parents. His story is told in a new documentary premiering in June at the Munich Film Festival. It portrays Virginia as a state where justice takes a backseat to politics.
Jens Soering received two life sentences for the brutal murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom in 1985. His lover, Elizabeth Haysom, got 90 years for serving as an accessory to the crime.
The case got new attention late last year, when Governor Terry McAuliffe announced he would not send Soering back to his homeland as requested by international treaty.
“I found out about it when my cellmate saw it on television, and told me about it, and I was shocked, ” Soering says.
Shocked because McAuliffe’s fellow Democrat, Tim Kaine, had signed off on a justice department request to return Soering to Germany. Steve Rosenfield is a Charlottesville attorney who represents Soering.
“Tim Kaine spent nine months investigating Jen Soering’s consideration for transfer to Germany," says Soering's lawyer Steve Rosenfield. " Governor McDonnel, who had done absolutely no work at all wrote to Eric Holder saying he rescinded Tim Kaine’s authorization.”
Republicans have used the Soering case for years to rally law-and-order voters. Delegate Rob Bell recently jumped on the issue as he began a campaign to become the state’s attorney general.
“He has used his connections through Germany. I have never met his family, but I gather they are very important people in a foreign country," Belle explains. "He’s used this law that none of us have ever heard of to try to get himself removed from Virginia, placed in Germany where there’s every reason to understand he’ll be promptly released.”
At the time of his trial, Soering was the son of a German diplomat, but former deputy attorney general Gail Marshall, who represented Soering on appeal, says her client was not rich, and his dad was not especially important.
“We should get the record straight on that," she says. "His father was a lifelong, mid-level government employee. He never had a high diplomatic post. When he was in the United States he was never posted to the embassy. He was posted to consulates in Atlanta and Detroit.”
Bell also contends Soering had a dream team of attorneys, but Soering says his first lawyer was hired by his father, came from Michigan, didn’t know Virginia law, and is no longer allowed to practice.
Soering disagrees. “My trial lawyer was disbarred for stealing money from me and from other people, and at his disciplinary hearing the bar association accepted his defense – that he had been suffering from a mental disability,” he says.
Soering does have powerful supporters in Germany. Angela Merkel reportedly asked President Obama to send him home, and many members of that country’s legislature have written to Governor McAuliffe on Soering’s behalf, but the governor isn’t sending Soering anywhere.
“He was properly tried," says McAuliffe. "He was convicted. He confessed to the crime. His girlfriend corroborated that. The crime was committed here in the Commonwealth, and he will stay here in the Commonwealth.”
What McAuliffe may not know is that two English psychiatrists said Elizabeth was borderline schizophrenic and a pathological liar – a diagnosis supported by at least one relative. Critics note Jens was questioned by police for 16 hours without an attorney, and the judge in his trial was a friend of the Haysom family.
As the documentary clearly shows, there were big problems with Soering’s confession and trial. This week, the governor left on a trade mission to the U.K. and Europe where he hopes to sell Virginia as a smart, progressive place to do business. Later this year, as the film is broadcast there, viewers will see a very different state.