“Finally.” That was the first word tweeted on a Twitter account for Jens Soering November 25, the day he learned he and former girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom had been granted parole, 34 years after the savage murders of her parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom.
Upon their release, Soering, 53, and Haysom, 55, will be turned over to ICE. He’ll be deported to Germany and Haysom will be sent to her native Canada. Neither will be allowed to return to the United States.
The sensational case of the two UVA Echols scholars who fled to Asia and were arrested in England has long enthralled central Virginia. Soering was an 18-year-old virgin when he met femme fatale Haysom, 20, and fell under her spell.
He initially confessed to the slayings of the Bedford couple, whose throats were slit and who were stabbed multiple times, to protect his lover from execution, believing that as the son of a German diplomat, he’d have diplomatic immunity. He quickly recanted his story, but authorities chose not to believe his denial, nor did they accept Haysom’s initial confession.
After fighting deportation for four years, his 1990 murder trial was broadcast, a rarity here. Haysom was sentenced to 90 years as an accomplice before the fact, and Soering received two life sentences.
He has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and over the years has gained many prominent supporters, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Irwin Cotler, and Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding.
In 2009, then-governor Tim Kaine, on his way out of office, agreed to transfer Soering to Germany, but Kaine’s successor, Bob McDonnell, immediately quashed that plan.
In 2016, German filmmakers released a documentary on the case called Killing for Love. In letters, Haysom frequently expressed her desire to see her parents dead, and suggested that her mother sexually abused her—although she denied that at her trial.
Harding became involved in the case about that time, and with other retired cops—Chuck Reid, who was the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office initial investigator of the murders, former Charlottesville police investigator Richard Hudson, and former FBI agent Stan Lapekas—became convinced there were gaping holes in the evidence against Soering and that Haysom had the motive for the vicious attack.
Haysom’s rare type B blood was found at the scene, as was a bloody sock print. An expert witness at Soering’s trial testified that it could belong to Soering, but other investigators have derided that opinion as “junk science.”
Later testing showed that the O type blood found at Loose Chippings, the Haysoms’ Bedford home, did not belong to Soering, and no physical evidence links him to the crime scene. DNA testing indicates blood found there belongs to two still-unidentified men, says Harding.
He wrote a 19-page letter to the governor in 2017 and said, “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.”
Harding learned of the parole when a reporter called. “I’m ecstatic for Jens,” he says. “It’s his life and this is the most important thing for him. As an investigator, I’m not satisfied.”
He says parole investigators won’t tell him what they found, nor what they determined wasn’t credible. “We’ll probably never get the answers we want.”
Soering’s attorney Steve Rosenfield represented the now-exonerated Robert Davis, another false confession client who spent 13 years in prison.
Rosenfield filed a petition to pardon Soering in 2016. Governor Ralph Northam rejected an absolute pardon, as did the parole board, which calls Soering’s claims of innocence “without merit.” But the board did agree to parole after rebuffing requests from both model prisoners many times over the years.
In a statement, Board Chair Adrianne Bennett said parole and deportation were appropriate “based on their youth at the time of the offenses, institutional adjustment, and their length of incarceration.” She notes that their expulsion from the United States “is a tremendous cost benefit to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia and we have determined that their release does not pose a risk to public safety.”
Rosenfield, who spent more than 3,000 hours working pro bono on Soering’s case, learned of the decision when he read Frank Green’s Richmond Times-Dispatch story, and at press time had not spoken to Soering.
On Twitter, Soering expressed frustration with the decision: “Without a pardon there might be freedom, but there won’t be justice.”
To those who believed him, he says, “I owe this freedom to my fantastic supporters, who worked so hard, never lost hope and stood by me throughout the decades. Apparently, ‘thank you’ isn’t enough.”
Observes Harding, “People in Virginia, if innocent, once convicted, their chances of being vindicated are pretty slim.”