With the success of the podcast “Serial” and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” wrongful convictions are a hot topic. Joining the debate is a documentary about one of central Virginia’s most notorious double homicides—and the convicted murderer who has insisted he’s innocent for 30 years.
The Promise: The Story of Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom heads to the Munich Film Festival for its world premiere in June, says Karin Steinberger, one of the film’s two directors, in a phone call from Germany.
UVA Echols scholars Soering and Haysom were convicted for the March 30, 1985, stabbings and near-decapitations of Haysom’s parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, in their Bedford County home.
Soering, a German diplomat’s son who wrongly believed he had diplomatic immunity, initially said he committed the crime. Although he recanted before he went to trial in 1990, a jury convicted him and sentenced him to two life sentences. In 1987, Haysom pleaded guilty to first-degree murder as an accessory before the fact and was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
“It is a big love story,” says Steinberger. “A crazy, incredible love story. He said, ‘I confessed for her so she wouldn’t be killed in the electric chair.’”
Soering’s case has intense interest in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue with President Barack Obama in 2014, and the case drew international headlines in 2010 when outgoing-governor Tim Kaine agreed to send Soering back to Germany, only to have that decision immediately rescinded by his successor, Bob McDonnell.
“The harshness of the American system is hard for people in Germany to understand,” says Steinberger, who notes that America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country. Germany does not have life sentences without the possibility of parole, and it’s very rare to have someone sit in prison as long as Soering has, she says.
“Here, the system allows you a second chance, particularly if you’re young,” Steinberger says. “It doesn’t help to have a lot of people in prison. They’re part of society. We want them to be back in society.”
Soering was 18 when the murders occurred, and he has been denied parole 11 times since he was eligible in 2003, most recently in December.
The filmmakers asked questions about what they observed, including why the judge, William Sweeney, a friend of the Nancy Haysom’s brother, was allowed to preside. “In Germany this is not thinkable,” says Steinberger.
She also wonders why nude pictures of Elizabeth Haysom taken by her mother were not entered as evidence. Haysom has claimed she was abused by her mother. “This is a huge motive,” says Steinberger. “The judge sealed off the photos. He very clearly didn’t want them discussed in court. But if you want to find out the truth, you have to talk about everything.”
Many people with information about the case were not questioned in court, and an FBI profile of the Haysoms’ killer disappeared, according to Steinberger. She says noted FBI profiler Ed Sulzbach appeared on camera and said he came to the conclusion the killer “was very close to the family and female.”
Steinberger first interviewed Soering in 2006 and got him on film before Virginia prisons banned videoing. Now, she can’t even speak to him on the phone because such calls require a U.S. phone number.
After The Promise premieres June 24 in Munich, co-producer BBC will air the documentary and it will head to U.S. movie theaters and television.