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.