New Evidence of Innocence: The Jens Soering Story

Feb 3, 2017

Part I: Why Did Soering Confess? 

The Making of a Murderer – a documentary that aired on Netflix – cast doubt on the guilt of a man convicted of murder in Wisconsin and raised questions about law enforcement and the justice system there.  Now, Virginia is coming under the microscope with a film premiering in June.

The Promise is a documentary about Jens Soering, a UVA honors student from Germany who, in 1990, was convicted of fatally stabbing his girlfriend’s parents in their Bedford County home.

“I never thought that Jens would murder my parents.  I thought he might do a lot of things, but to kill somebody?  I never believed he would do that to my parents.  I still can hardly believe it.  No matter what I said to him, no matter what I had written to him, he had a choice whether to kill my parents or not!”

At first, Jens confessed after 16 hours of interrogation over four days. German journalist and filmmaker Karin Steinberger says she has heard a recording of that confession.

She says, “You can hear that he is struggling, and you know in this confession there are mistakes – big mistakes.”

At a café in Munich, she described some of those errors.  Jens said, for example, that Mrs. Haysom was wearing blue jeans, when – in fact – she wore a flowery housecoat.  He recalled Mr. Haysom’s body in one position, when it was found in another, and the weapon he claimed to have used was not a double-bladed hunting knife, what detectives felt sure was employed.

Then there was the question of motive.  Prosecutors surmised that Soering killed the Haysoms because they didn’t approve of his relationship with their daughter, but Karin Steinberger posits another possible motive – this one for Elizabeth, who admitted her mother had taken nude pictures of her as a child.

“I know it was a huge taboo in the 80’s, especially sexual abuse by the mother.  I think even now it is a kind of taboo. These pictures were sealed off.  They weren’t there at the court. This is incredible, because this makes a huge motive,” says Steinberger.

Bedford County Detective Ricky Gardner was aware of some possible sexual abuse. He says, “She acknowledged that her mother had touched her and fondled her and tried to have a romantic relationship with her.“  When asked if he thought it was significant, he says, No, no.  It’s bizarre, but it doesn’t link back to the murder or anything.” 

On the weekend when her parents were killed, Elizabeth and Jens had gone to Washington.  He says she left him there, explaining she had to settle a debt with her drug dealer.  She was, admittedly, using heroin, and filmmaker Steinberger claims her dealer was the son of a prominent family in Bedford.

He was never called to the witness stand , and when an expert on tire tracks testified that a bloody sock print was likely made by Jens, his lawyer didn’t call any real experts to dispute the claim.  That was shocking to Gail Marshall, a former deputy attorney general who handled one of Soering’s appeals. “One of the jurors said that at the beginning the jury was divided six-six, and that the only reason he did decide to find Jens guilty was the sock print,” says Marshall.

In fact, Marshall says, you can’t tell much of anything from a sock print.   All of this begs the question.  Why did Soering confess?  The film offers possible evidence that Soering made a promise to protect the real killer – Elizabeth.  As the son of a German diplomat, he thought he’d have special legal protection – be sent back to Germany for trial. Instead, he’s spent more than half of his life in Virginia prisons.  

Soering in 1990

Part II: Proving a False Confession - Soering Insists He's Innocent

Earlier this year, Governor Terry McAuliffe issued a pardon to Robert Davis – a man convicted of a brutal double murder after he falsely confessed to the crime.  McAuliffe did not pardon another convicted killer, a former UVA honors student from Germany.  Jens Soering insists he also gave a false confession, hoping to save the real killer from execution. The fatal love story of Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom will soon be told in a documentary called The Promise.  Sandy Hausman has details.

If you lived in Virginia in 1985, chances are you know the story.  Jens Soering, the son of a German diplomat was accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents in their Bedford County home.

Ricky Gardner was a rookie detective when the bodies were found.  He’s convinced that Jens Soering was the killer, noting he and Elizabeth Haysom left town as soon as they became suspects.

“An innocent person don’t run," he concludes. 

Soering and Haysom traveled the world before being arrested in England where they were charged with check fraud.  After being questioned for more than 16 hours over four days, Soering confessed to the crime.  But today, he says that confession is proof of his innocence. 

“The way you can tell it’s a false confession is by checking what I said against the physical evidence at the crime scene,” he explains.  "I told the police that I acted alone.  What they found at the crime scene was all four blood groups – the two blood groups of the victims and two other blood groups, so that already tells you, at the very least, there were at least two perpetrators. 

"I told the police that I acted alone. What they found at the crime scene was all four blood groups: the two blood groups of the victims and two other blood groups, so that already tells you, at the very least, there were at least two perpetrators."

Now one of those blood types -- type O -- was his, but years later,  when technology allowed for DNA testing, investigators found no sign of Soering in the Haysom home.

“The police tested 42 blood samples from the crime scene," Soering recalls. "Thirty-one of those were too small or too degraded to yield positive identification, but 11 of the blood samples could be tested, and all of those were from somebody else – definitely not me."

Police have never identified the fingerprint on a glass at the Haysom’s table or a strand of hair from the sink where traces of blood were found.  Soering claimed to have used a butterfly knife to commit the crime, but that’s not what investigators thought when they studied the injuries inflicted.  They believed the murder weapon was a hunting knife like the one found when a Bedford County Sheriff’s Deputy stopped two men a few days after the crime. 

“He put one of them in the patrol car in the back and frisked one of them, and then he put the other one in the back of the patrol car and frisked the first one, and then he let them go," Soering says.  "Later on, when he returned to the police station, he found this buck knife – this hunting knife – in the back of the patrol car. "

Police did not question the two about the Haysom murders, but they would later be convicted of another murder in Roanoke using a knife.  That fact alarmed journalist and filmmaker Karin Steinberger.  I spoke with her at a Munich café.

“You know killing with knives is not very usual," she says. "It is actually very hard to kill a person with a knife.  This was never, ever mentioned in court.”

In 1996, lawyers brought that discovery to the attention of a judge, who ruled it would not have changed the outcome of Soering’s trial. Karin Steinberger’s documentary challenges that point and suggests the existence of a missing FBI  profile of the killer – a woman who was close to her victims. None of this has swayed Governor Terry McAuliffe, who had the chance to send Soering back to Germany but decided to keep him behind bars in Virginia.  We’ll hear from him in our next report.  

Part III: Is Jens Soering a Prisoner of Politics?

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.

Rob Bell, a candidate for Virginia Attorney General, says Jens Soering should never be freed.

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.

Rep. Rob Bell

“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 McDonnell, 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.  

"He was properly tried," says Governor Terry 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."

Part IV: Soering Claims his Innocence After New Blood Analysis

It’s been more than 30 years since police arrested Jens Soering, an honors student from the University of Virginia, and charged him with the brutal murder of his girlfriend’s parents in their Bedford County home.  To this day, Soering insists he is innocent, but he’s been turned down for parole nearly a dozen times.  Today, his lawyer filed a petition asking for a full pardon - citing new evidence that Soering is not guilty.   

Jens Soering recently turned 50. He’s spent more than half his life behind bars for killing Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of his first love - Elizabeth, also an honors student at UVA.

“Mr. Haysom was stabbed 36 times.  His throat was cut.”

Ricky Gardner was the lead investigator in that case.

“All the major structures of his neck were severed - carotid, jugular, wind pipe, and Mrs. Haysom the same.”

Gardner was convinced that Soering acted alone, but before the rookie detective took charge, the case was assigned to a seasoned officer named Chuck Reid. 

“Chuck Reid does not think that Jens Soering committed the crime.  He thinks that Elizabeth was at the house along with one or more other people.”

That’s Soering’s lawyer, Steve Rosenfield.  He learned about Reid from a new German documentary called The Promise. It also features an FBI profiler who recently died.  His name was Ed Sulzbach.

“Mrs. Haysom’s wearing her nightgown with a robe and it occurred to me that Mrs. Haysom would never entertain strangers in such attire.  We’re dealing with somebody who’s close to these people.”

He settled on Elizabeth as the prime suspect, but his profile was never shared with Soering’s defense team as required by law, and the FBI now says it does not have the document.

Before he came to trial, Soering had actually confessed to the crime. Later he said he did that to protect Elizabeth.  He was the son of a low-level German diplomat and assumed he’d be sent back to his homeland for trial. Germany rarely imposes long sentences for young killers.  The documentary bolsters Soering’s claim, sharing excerpts from letters Jens and Elizabeth wrote to each other after their arrest.

“Promise me, Jens.  Whatever it takes now, promise me you will not let me ruin your life.  I’ve seriously f***** up mine.  Don’t let me destroy yours.  I would kill myself if I discovered you were compromising yourself for me.”

“You are in a horrible position, more horrible than mine.  Let me clear a couple of things up - erase all written evidence of Bedford, cross it out.  That’s all I have time for, Sweetie.  Always trust me.  Always love me.”

“I have been upset, scared, lonely, worried.  You won’t leave me to take the wrap alone.”

“If I go to Germany and get convicted, I will go away for only a few years.  Your parole board will give you early parole, especially when they take my early release into consideration, so in a few years we will hopefully both be out and together.  Trust me and go with the flow.”

Additional support comes from a new report written by a British expert on police interrogations.  Again, attorney Steve Rosenfield:

Jens Soering
Credit Associated Press

“He spent five months reviewing hundreds and hundreds of pages of trial transcript, looking at diagrams, pictures, consulting with other experts, and he concluded that Jens Soering’s confession was unreliable.”

Unreliable in part because Soering got key details wrong - claiming, for example, that Mrs. Haysom was wearing blue jeans when - in fact - she wore a paisley robe.  Unreliable, too, because Soering, who had fled to England when he became a suspect, was kept in isolation during his interrogation - not allowed to consult with a lawyer.

“Unheard of in this country as being lawful, and yet we have the report that we will be submitting to the governor in which they put an entry in the log that says, ‘Soering is to be kept incommunicado, and Soering asked to talk to a solicitor and was denied that opportunity.”

At the time of the crime, DNA analysis was not possible, but the state’s crime lab identified four blood types at the scene. Type A was Mr. Haysom, AB was Mrs. Haysom, Type B was Elizabeth and then there was type O.  Prosecutors made much of the fact that Soering is type O, so by the way,  is 48% of the population.

Seven years ago, the crime lab tested eleven blood samples from the Haysom home and found no DNA from Soering. The technician didn’t know what types of blood she was testing, but former detective Ricky Gardner claimed none of the samples were O. This summer, Jens Soering learned otherwise. Because Virginia bans reporting at the Buckingham Correctional Center, we spoke with him by phone.

“I thought why not cross reference the 1985 blood typing test results against the 2009 DNA test results.”

He found two type O samples that had, in fact, been DNA tested.

“So what we know now is that Derek and Nancy Haysom’s killer had type O blood, and we know from the DNA test results that this person with the type O blood was a male, because it has XY chromosomes, but we know with equal certainty that this male type O person was not me.  I’m completely, 100% eliminated.”

In other words, the DNA sequence of the type O blood found at the scene of the crime was different from the DNA sequence of Jens Soering's blood.

And there are other reasons to believe someone else committed the crime for which Soering has served 31 years.  We’ll look at those in our next report. 

Part V: Criminal Investigator Says Soering is Innocent

It’s been six weeks since convicted killer Jens Soering asked Virginia’s governor for a pardon based on new evidence.  Soering has been behind bars for more than 30 years in connection with the bloody murders of his girlfriend’s parents. 

Now, in a story exclusive to RadioIQ and NBC 12 in Richmond, a former detective who spent six months on the case says he’s convinced Soering is innocent. 

 

Detective Chuck Reid was called to the home of a prominent Bedford County couple -- Derrick and Nancy Haysom -- in April of 1985.

“The Sunday prior to that I was watching the movie Helter Skelter," Reid says.  "Then three days later I walk into the Haysom house.”

And what he found at the Haysom’s made him think of the bloody Manson murders depicted in Helter Skelter.  Inside the front door, he found Mr. Haysom, all but decapitated.

“The whole floor was just smeared with blood, and then as you step into the kitchen Mrs. Haysom was lying there on the floor,” says Reid.

"When he confessed to it, he did not have things quite right the way the crime scene was."

Police called in a respected criminal profiler, Ed Sulzbach, who died recently in Northern Virginia.  Reid says Sulzbach concluded the murderer was female, and was looking at the daughter.

Former Bedford County Detective Chuck Reid thinks Jens Soering is innocent and urges officials to review his case.

The daughter was Elizabeth Haysom, an honors student at the University of Virginia. On several occasions she had told her German boyfriend, Jens Soering, that she hated her parents and wished they were dead.  Police brought Elizabeth and Jens in for interrogation.

“The first time I laid eyes on Jens Soering, when he walked into my office that Sunday afternoon, it about floored me," Reid says.  "Here comes this little 18-year-old kid – maybe he weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t see it.’”

On the other hand, Reid suspected Elizabeth was in some way involved.

“I always felt Elizabeth was there, and of course I’m not the only one.  Some family members feel the same way I do,” says Reid.

But when the two were finally arrested, Jens said he alone committed the crime.  The son of a German diplomat, he thought he’d be sent back to his homeland for trial, and says he hoped to spare Elizabeth, his first love, from execution.

By now, Chuck Reid had taken another job, but when he read about Jens’ confession, he thought something was wrong.

“When he confessed to it, he did not have things quite right the way the crime scene was,” says Reid.

Prosecutors had argued that type O blood found at the scene came from Jens – but a recent review of DNA evidence shows the type O blood was not his.  In fact, Reid says there is nothing from the crime scene to suggest Soering was there – although there’s reason to believe Elizabeth and an unknown man were.

“You’ve got her fingerprint on a vodka bottle.  You’ve got a hair sample that was in the bathroom sink that nobody knows whose it is. You have an unknown fingerprint on a shot glass," Reid says. "We don’t know whose that is.  It’s not Jens’.  You’ve got Merit cigarette butts.  That’s what Elizabeth would smoke was Merit.  So you’ve got more that puts her there than Jens Soering.”

When he confessed to it, he did not have things quite right the way the crime scene was.

A tire track expert testified at the trial that a bloody sock print matched Soering’s foot, but investigators in Bedford County concluded the print was likely left by a woman or a young boy.  Elizabeth was eventually convicted as an accessory after the crime, and from a cell at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women she denies knowing about the murders in advance or playing any part in the actual killings.

Elizabeth had a history of mental illness, and was known to lie.  Jens used to tease her about fabrications – calling them POT ’s – perversions of the truth.  Chuck Reid doubts her claim of innocence and believes she had help in killing her parents. 

“Now a name came up of an individual who’s deceased now that was really good friends with her and supposedly was one of her drug supplier," Reid says. "I know she did a lot of drugs.”

In fact, Elizabeth told police she had taken LSD on the night her parents were murdered.  She claimed to have gone to Washington for the weekend with Jens but says he left her there, took a rental car and went to Bedford.

“And then she said, ‘When he returned to Washington he was wrapped in a sheet covered in blood,” Reid says.

Reid tested the car – the seats, the steering wheel, the carpet and found not a trace of blood.  He was never called to testify, but he’s speaking up now – concerned that others involved with the case may be too proud or too political to do so.

“Politics and reputations can’t determine whether a man stays in jail the rest of his life.  If they’re not guilty and it can be proven they’re not guilty, then somebody needs to do something,” Reid says.

That somebody could be Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who’s been sitting on a request to pardon Soering since late August. His parole board says it’s so backed up that it can’t get to Soering’s request until some time next year.

“I know the petition, we’ve received it in our office, so it’s going through the normal procedure that we’re looking at it, but I’d be surprised if it would take that long, and I’ll look into that for you,” McAuliffe said when asked about the case.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and RadioIQ has heard nothing more from Terry McAuliffe, nor has the Governor agreed to the German ambassador’s request for a meeting.

Chuck Reid, who has thought often about the case, fears Soering may again be forgotten.

“My concern is that it’s going to run out to the point to where another governor’s going to come in," Reid says. "Then there’s another 3 to 4 years that this young man is going to have to spend behind bars, when it can be proven he’s innocent.”

A documentary about the case will be featured next month at the Virginia Film Festival, followed by a panel discussion with Reid and others who believe Soering is not guilty.   

That was nearly two weeks ago, and RadioIQ has heard nothing more from Terry McAuliffe, nor has the Governor agreed to the German ambassador’s request for a meeting. 

Chuck Reid, who has thought often about the case, fears Soering may again be forgotten.

“My concern is that it’s going to run out to the point to where another governor’s going to come in," Reid says. "Then there’s another 3 to 4 years that this young man is going to have to spend behind bars, when it can be proven he’s innocent.”

documentary about the case will be featured next month at the Virginia Film Festival, followed by a panel discussion with Reid and others who believe Soering is not guilty.

Part VI: Parole Board Members Hear New Evidence on Soering

Virginia’s parole board held hearing number twelve yesterday for Jens Soering, a former UVA honors student from Germany who was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents in 1985.  Soering’s conviction was based in part on a finding of type O blood at the crime scene, but DNA testing now shows the type O blood came from another man, and Soering’s lawyer shared the new genetic evidence with the parole board.

Virginia’s five-person  parole board does not hear cases as a group.  Instead, one member hears from crime victims and advocates for the prisoner.  This year, it was Adrienne Bennet who listened as Soering’s lawyer, Steve Rosenfield, presented a long list of reasons why he thinks his client is innocent.  He shared a DNA report proving type O blood at the scene came not from Soering but from some other man, and – for the first time – he announced two samples of type AB blood had not come from one of the victims – Nancy Haysom – as originally claimed by prosecutors.

“The 2009 DNA test proved that the AB was contributed by a male, because a Y chromosome was found, so now we know for the first time that there were two male participants at the crime scene, neither of which was Jens Soering.”

He also shared evidence not disclosed to the jury, including the view of an FBI profiler suggesting the killer was a woman who knew her victims well.  Of course, a parole board is not supposed to review the original trial, but Rosenfield felt these details should be considered.

“The parole board is supposed to make a determination about whether somebody is safe to release, and by everybody’s standards, somebody who is innocent should not be in prison.”

An official from the German government told parole board member Adrienne Bennett that Soering has friends in his homeland who will give him employment, computer training and a place to live, and he presented a new petition from Germany’s parliament with signatures from more than a hundred members calling for Soering’s release.  Catholic Deacon Tom Elliott, who befriended Soering over many years, and attorney Gail Marshall who has known him for two decades said they had no reason to believe the man could commit a violent crime, adding that he has served more than 30 years in prison without breaking a single rule.

Supporters of Jens Soering leave a parole hearing in Richmond.

The parole board has said it may take six weeks or longer to reach a final decision.  If Soering gets parole, he must return to Germany but says he will pursue a pardon from the Governor.  We spoke with him by phone from the Buckingham Correctional Center.

“There are other innocent men in Virginia prisons right now, and I’m hoping that my case brings some attention to that, that my case will prevent miscarriages of justice in future. If all I get is parole, then that’s not going to lead to any changes.”

So is he feeling hopeful about the prospects for parole?

“I’m not.  More than anything else I’m feeling scared.  I’ve been in this place before many, many times over the last 30 years.  At different stages things looked like they were really going to work out for me finally, and then they didn’t.  Seven years ago I received a letter from the governor telling me to go home, and then that was reversed.”

Soering says his former girlfriend, who is also behind bars as an accomplice, actually took part in the murders.  She recently claimed her mother had sexually abused her for eight years, and Elizabeth Haysom admitted to using drugs like heroin and LSD. 

Soering believes her accomplices may also have been involved with drugs, and he thinks she is not naming them, because admitting involvement in the crime would ruin her chances for parole.