A man who’s spent more than 30 years behind bars for a double murder he says he did not commit has a powerful new ally today. Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding says he’s spent more than 200 hours studying the case, and he believes Soering is innocent. He’s explained his thinking in a 19-page letter to Governor Terry McAuliffe who, to date, has refused to pardon Soering.
When Sheriff Chip Harding heard about the brutal murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom in 1985 he was busy – investigating a big cocaine case in Charlottesville. He knew only what he heard from the media.
The Haysoms’ daughter, Elizabeth, and her boyfriend Jens Soering were honors students at the University of Virginia, but when they became suspects in the case, they left the country. Nine months later, they were arrested for check fraud in England and confessed to the murders.
Harding says Elizabeth later withdrew her claim. “She said, ‘I did it. I got off on it,’ and the interrogator stopped and said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ and went on into – ‘tell me more about Jens.’ I thought, ‘Really, that happened?’”
Soering, whose dad worked at the German consulate in Detroit, said he thought he had diplomatic immunity and confessed to save his first love from execution. Harding didn’t believe it, but this year Soering’s lawyer asked the sheriff of Albemarle County to take a closer look at the case.
Harding spent more than 200 hours talking with experts, meeting Soering in prison, reading books, trial transcripts, forensic and police reports.
“My wife thinks I’ve lost my mind, because I was bringing everything home, putting it on the dining room table, on weekends and in the evenings working on it.”
The prosecution insisted Soering acted alone, and type O blood found at the crime scene was his, but scientists now say that blood did not come from either of the victims or from Jens Soering.
In fact, they say, two blood samples came from two men not previously identified. An FBI profiler had originally suspected Elizabeth. In letters to Jens, she said she despised her parents and wished them dead. Harding weighed the options.
“Was it Elizabeth Haysom who, according to the psychologists, had mental illness. She admittedly used, and her friends agreed, marijuana, LSD and heroin on a regular basis? She would have had the local contacts in that drug world. You’ve got Jens Soering, a non-drug user, bops on into the University of Virginia, meets this drop-dead gorgeous girl. He’s been a geek his whole life, and he thinks he’s fallen in love.”
During the trial, prosecutor Jim Updike called an expert witness to the stand. Robert Hallett knew about tire tracks, but the judge ruled he was not an expert on footprints. Still, he was allowed to testify that a bloody sock print at the crime scene was a perfect match for Soering’s foot.
Harding says jurors figured there was science behind that claim.
“We now have national experts who’ve said that’s hogwash. It should never have been allowed in front of the jury, and why the defense team didn’t bring in experts to refute that is beyond me.”
One possible explanation, Soering’s lawyer was later disbarred, admitting a mental disability at the time of the Bedford trial. During the course of his research, Sheriff Harding found another mention of Robert Hallett – the man who made claims about footprints.
“I found another case that he had testified in about a shoe print and the gait the guy walked, which again is beyond science, and that man was given the death penalty, and thank goodness he wasn’t executed, because 18 years later he was exonerated by DNA.”
And he blasts prosecutor Updike for “outrageous conduct.”
“And he may argue, ‘Well, I prosecute cases, and the defense is there to defend cases.” A whole lot of prosecutors, you know they’re feeling that community pressure, and once they think they’ve got the right person on trial, they go for it.”
Now, in a 19-page letter to the governor, Harding makes the case that Soering should be pardoned. Terry McAuliffe recently claimed he’d seen no reason to free Soering, but Harding hopes his work will change the governor’s mind. He vows to keep working and says he may soon have additional evidence to support a claim of innocence.