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McAuliffe's Win Brings Hope For German Citizen Imprisoned In Virginia For 28 Years

The election of a Democratic Governor in Virginia prompted celebrations in some parts of Germany, where citizens have closely followed the case of their countryman, Jens Soering.

Soering was an honors student at the University of Virginia, who in 1990 was convicted of killing his girlfriend's parents. Soering has now been incarcerated for 28 years, but he says he's innocent — and many Germans believe him.

On March 30, 1985, police found the bodies of Derek Haysom, a retired Canadian steel executive, and his wife, Nancy Astor Haysom, in their home near Lynchburg, the place they called Loose Chippings. They had been brutally murdered.

"This is the way we found Mr. Haysom, and you can see all the blood on the slate floor," recalls Ricky Gardner, who at the time was a newly minted detective with the Bedford County Sheriff's office. Today, 28 years later, he pages through a notebook of photos from the crime scene.

"Mr. Haysom was stabbed 36 times. His throat was cut, and Ms. Haysom the same," he says.

The couple's 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was a student at the University of Virginia. On the weekend when her parents were killed, she claimed to have rented a car and traveled to D.C. with her 18-year-old boyfriend Jens Soering. Gardner checked on that rental car and was intrigued — it had gone 669 miles.

"Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C. to Loose Chippings, to Washington, D.C., back to Charlottesville. That's right about 669 miles," says Gardner.

Gardner met with Soering, who denied any part in the murders. A few days later, Jens and Elizabeth left the country. They traveled in Asia and Europe before being arrested for check fraud in England. When questioned about the murders, Jens, the son of a German diplomat, said he committed the crime, because the Haysoms disapproved of his relationship with Elizabeth.

But another story would emerge before his trial began.

"He thought that he had diplomatic immunity, that he would not be tried in the United States. He would be sent to Germany," says Gail Starling Marshall, a deputy attorney general in Virginia from 1986 to 1994. She says Germany is more lenient when it comes to crimes committed by young people, and there's greater emphasis on rehabilitation. Teenage killers can be released after only a decade, and Soering said he would gladly spend ten years behind bars to save his first lover from the electric chair.

"He was a non-drinker. He was not a drug user. He was a nerd, really. I think he was overwhelmed that this glamorous woman was attracted to him, and so he thought, I can give up ten years of my life, but it's worth it for this woman I love," says Marshall.

But it turned out he was not entitled to diplomatic protection, and in 1990 he was tried and convicted in Virginia, getting two life sentences for the crime.

DNA technology was not yet in use, but an FBI-trained technician compared Soering's foot print with a bloody sock print at the Haysom's home. Marshall, who led Soering's appeal, says that was pseudo-science.

"The reason it sounds semi-scientific is we think of foot prints as finger prints, but that's because there are dermal ridges on your hands, and they're pretty unique. You can't identify anything from a sock print," she says.

In fact, looking at size, she argued the sock print was more likely left by Elizabeth.

There were also questions about Elizabeth's mental health. An admitted user of many illegal drugs, she was the prosecution's star witness, but one psychiatrist described her as borderline schizophrenic and a pathological liar. What's more, in court she accused her mother of sexual abuse. Nancy Haysom, who was an artist, had taken nude photographs of her daughter — a fact dismissed by detective Ricky Gardner.

"She acknowledged that her mother had touched her and fondled her and tried to have a romantic relationship with her, but it didn't link back to the murder or anything," he says.

During an aggressive cross-examination, Elizabeth withdrew the charge, but Karin Steinberger, an investigative reporter for one of Germany's top newspapers, sees child abuse as a possible motive for the crime. She also discovered that within a week of the Haysom murders there was another killing — with a knife — in Roanoke. Two individuals confessed and are in prison for that crime. Legal documents indicate that one told a fellow inmate that they also killed the Haysoms, but Steinberger says no one investigated that claim.

"You know killing with knives is not very usual. It is actually very hard to kill a person with a knife. All I wonder is why nobody would bother asking these questions," says Steinberger.

Recent tests on 42 pieces of evidence from the crime scene found no DNA from Soering, and when detective Ricky Gardner looked for blood in the car Jens allegedly drove after a very bloody crime, he found none. There was an unidentified fingerprint on a glass at the crime scene, and a hair that did not belong to the victims or to Soering.

Critics think such details should prompt a new investigation or maybe a new trial for Soering, but Virginia has something called the 21-day rule. With the exception of evidence that clearly proves innocence — like DNA — new information can only be considered if it's submitted within 21 days of a conviction.

"I think every state has some kind of rule that enough is enough. After we've looked at it and looked at it, we have to have some finality to all judgments, and so I think the question is really what is the proper balance between finality and making sure that you're not convicting an innocent person," says former deputy attorney general Gail Marshall.

Elizabeth, who is serving time as an accomplice, insists Soering killed her parents. Soering says she's doing that to improve her chances for parole. He has not broken a single rule in prison and has published nine books on theology and prison reform, but he had no hope that a parole board appointed by Governor Bob McDonnell would release him.

"This board has a parole grant rate of approximately two percent, which means that 98 percent of the prisoners are denied parole, and last year they actually denied me parole 11 days before the board hearing," he says.

Former Governor Tim Kaine had signed off on a request from the Obama administration to send Soering back to Germany, but as Kaine left office the new governor, McDonnell, blocked the deal.

Since then, about 150 German lawmakers have written to the governor asking that Soering be released, and thousands of German citizens also wrote to the White House. When Democrat Terry McAuliffe takes over, he'll appoint a new parole board, which could free Soering, or the Obama administration might again request repatriation, and with McAuliffe's approval, Soering could be sent home.

Hausman reported this story during an exchange program for German and American broadcasters funded by the RIAS Berlin Commission.


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