Former UVA student Jens Soering has insisted for decades he’s innocent of the notorious double homicide for which he’s been imprisoned for 31 years. He was an international sensation even before then-Governor Tim Kaine agreed to ship Soering back to his native Germany, a decision rescinded by his successor Bob McDonnell immediately upon taking office in 2010.
That didn’t slow the drumbeat that Soering, 50, was wrongfully convicted of the 1985 murders of his girlfriend’s parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom. Now, along with the German Bundestag and Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for his release, Soering has another heavy hitter proclaiming his innocence.
No one would call Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding soft on crime. He’s spent a career going after the bad guys, most of it with the Charlottesville Police Department, relentlessly investigating crimes and lobbying the General Assembly to fund Virginia’s moribund DNA databank back in the late 1990s and turn it into a national model.
So when Soering’s pro bono attorney, Steve Rosenfield, asked Harding to take a look at the investigation and trial, Harding says he knew little of the case, thought Soering was probably guilty and that “McDonnell did the right thing” in nixing the reparation.
Two hundred hours of investigating hefty case files later, in a 19-page letter to Governor Terry McAuliffe, Harding says, “In my opinion, Jens Soering would not be convicted if the case were tried today, and the evidence appears to support a case for his innocence.”
Even more disturbing: Recent DNA results from the crime scene indicate “not only was Soering not a contributor of blood found at the crime scene, but two men left blood at the scene.”
Harding’s theory is that the dead couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, whose uncommon type B blood was found at the scene and who has claimed her mother sexually abused her, had the motive for the savage slayings and used either an emotional or a drug connection to entice the unknown accomplices.
“I totally understand why the jury found him guilty,” Harding says. But multiple factors convinced him that the jury had been misled and that Soering had an inadequate defense, including a lead attorney who “was mentally ill and later disbarred,” he writes the governor.
“If I had to pick one thing,” he says, “it was the DNA.”
The DNA databank was established in 1989, the year before Soering’s trial. “There was a lot of blood available at that crime scene,” says Harding. “Why it wasn’t tested, I don’t know.”
He also mentions the bloody sock print found at the scene, about which a so-called expert was allowed to testify that it was likely Soering’s. “That was totally outrageous,” says Harding. Qualified experts have since said the print excludes Soering from the scene, but one juror said in a 1995 affidavit that the sock print testimony swayed him to convict.
Echols scholars Soering and Haysom met his first year at UVA in 1984 when he was 18 and a virgin, he’s said. He was smitten with the 20-year-old Haysom. The weekend of the murders, the two went to Washington in a rental car. Soering initially confessed that he was the killer to protect Haysom because he mistakenly believed he would have some sort of diplomatic immunity.
He quickly recanted and said it was Haysom who disappeared for hours and drove to Bedford, but Haysom, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory before the fact, still maintains Soering was the one who single-handedly butchered her parents.
Harding notes that her court-appointed doctors said at her sentencing “Haysom had a personality disorder and lied regularly.”
Last year Rosenfield, who is the attorney for now-exonerated Robert Davis, filed an absolute pardon with McAuliffe. A German documentary, The Promise, details the case and concludes Soering is innocent.
To have Harding, who has a national reputation in law enforcement, agree, only bolsters Soering’s case, says civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel. “What a coup.”
Harding, who investigated the wrongful conviction of Michael Hash that led to Hash’s release, joins the list of those who believe Soering is innocent, a position not shared by many in Bedford, including the case’s lead investigator, Major Ricky Gardner, who did not return a call, nor current Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance.
Nance says the DNA evidence is not new, and he takes issue with concluding it proves two unknown males were in the Haysom house. “I do take some issue with [Harding’s] self-reported investigation,” such as talking to former lead investigator Chuck Reid, but not Gardner, citing a “movie with an obvious bias position,” and failing “to account for Ms. Haysom continuing to accept responsibility for her role in her parents’ death and continuing to confirm Mr. Soering’s role in those brutal killings,” he writes in an email.
“When you make a false confession in Virginia, it’s hard to get it changed,” says Harding, even when Soering had multiple details from the crime scene wrong. He mentions the Norfolk Four, who were convicted of a 1997 rape and murder and just received pardons. “It was just unbelievable how much evidence there was these guys didn’t do it,” says the sheriff.
“DNA is the truth,” avows Harding. “It proves the innocent, it convicts the guilty. It’s not that I’m hard on crime. I’m just trying to get it right.”
Correction: Elizabeth Haysom’s blood type—B—was found at the scene but it has not been tested to determine whether it’s actually her blood.