‘Blot’ on justice: Nelson Mandela counsel believes Jens Soering’s innocence

International human rights attorney Irwin Cotler met with Jens Soering in prison, and says Soering’s case has “all the markers” of a wrongful conviction.
Staff photo International human rights attorney Irwin Cotler met with Jens Soering in prison, and says Soering’s case has “all the markers” of a wrongful conviction. Staff photo

The former UVA Echols Scholar convicted for the 1985 murders of his girlfriend’s parents has gotten another prominent supporter. Former Canadian minister of justice Irwin Cotler, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and who was an attorney for political prisoners Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, was in town March 5 and says he thinks Jens Soering is wrongfully imprisoned.

Cotler says he was talking to Innocence Project founder Jason Flom and mentioned an upcoming visit to UVA law school. Flom told him about Soering, whom many believe is innocent of the horrific murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom in their Bedford home, particularly since new DNA analysis from blood at the crime scene indicates that other previously unidentified people were there, but not Soering.

Soering, a German citizen, has long claimed he confessed to the crime to protect then-girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom from execution. He says Haysom told him she’d killed her parents, and he  mistakenly believed he would have diplomatic immunity if he confessed to the crime.

He’s been in prison almost 33 years, and his case has been an international cause célèbre, with Germany calling for his repatriation and then-governor Tim Kaine agreeing to do so, only to have Bob McDonnell reverse the okay when he took office in 2010.

Cotler first became involved in wrongful convictions with the case of Steven Truscott, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl when he was 14. Cotler reviewed the evidence, and “I came to the conclusion there had been a miscarriage of justice,” he says.

After looking at the Soering case, “It struck me it had all the markers I’ve come to appreciate as the indicators of a wrongful conviction,” he says, listing false confession, inadequate attorney representation, and junk forensic science.

“It was a classic case of a wrongful conviction,” he says, and a “compelling case, which cried out for injustice that needed to be redressed, having gone on for 35 years.”

Cotler joins a prominent and growing array of Soering defenders, including bestselling author John Grisham and actor Martin Sheen, who wrote a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year calling for Soering’s release.

Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, who launched his own investigation of the case with a number of other cops, came to the conclusion Soering was innocent and wrote then-governor Terry McAuliffe that the evidence supports Soering’s innocence and that if tried today, he would not be convicted.

Cotler, who is an honorary member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, spent two hours with Soering at the Buckingham Correctional Center. “I was very much taken by his remarkable demeanor,” says Cotler of Soering, who has written 10 books while in prison, has been denied parole 14 times, and has never had an infraction during the more than three decades he’s been incarcerated.

“He doesn’t bear any rancor or desire for revenge,” says Cotler, who notes that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years before becoming president of South Africa, and taught that country “the importance of reconciliation.”

Soering has “a real feeling for what justice is all about,” says Cotler. “I hope his freedom will allow him to make the mark he has made in prison.”

A German documentary, Killing for Love, was released in 2016 and supports Soering’s innocence. And in an interview for the film, Elizabeth Haysom said her mother had sexually abused her for years, which experts like Harding say would be a motive for the murders.

Soering’s attorney Steve Rosenfield filed a petition for pardon in 2016 with the governor’s office, where’s it’s languished. A call to the secretary of the commonwealth, which handles pardons, was not returned, nor was a message to Governor Ralph Northam’s office.

Cotler is hopeful investigators for the governor and the parole board will resolve the matter and free Soering. The case, he says, “is a blot on the criminal justice system as a whole.”

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