Jens Soering (born August 1, 1966 in
Bangkok, Thailand) is a German citizen who has been imprisoned since
1986 for a double murder in Virginia, USA.
Jens Soering is the son of a German diplomat. In
1984 he began to study at the University of Virginia and fell in love
with a student named Elizabeth Haysom.
In March, 1985, Haysom's parents, Derek and Nancy,
were murdered. Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom were arrested in
England the following year when they were caught with a check fraud
Initially Soering claimed to be guilty of the
murder but later withdrew his three confessions. Soering said he took
the blame to protect Elizabeth Haysom from going to the electric chair
as he thought he would get deported to Germany and given a lighter
sentence because of his father's job as a mid-level diplomat. At trial,
Elizabeth Haysom accused him of being the murderer, but admitted being
an accessory in the crime.
The court case
In court, Jens Soering claimed that Haysom was the
murderer and he wanted to spare her the death penalty by confessing.
Soering later claimed to have assumed that, due to his father's
diplomatic immunity, he would be extradited to Germany and be
sentenced according to local juvenile criminal law to a sentence of
less than 10 years.
According to the prosecution's case, Soering was
the sole offender and his girlfriend was only an instigator. Although
there were no eyewitnesses or fingerprints of Soering at the scene,
and no usable DNA, the jury found Soering guilty, due to the presence
of other evidence as well as his confessions.
Even though he later took these back, he mentioned
that it was a killing with a knife, the Haysoms were drinking, and
other details that were consistent with the facts. Soering received
two consecutive life sentences for the murders. He was first eligible
for parole in 2003.
Soering was arrested on April 30, 1986 for fraud in
London and had been transferred to the U.S. authorities in 1990. He is
currently serving his sentence at the Buckingham Correctional Center
in Dillwyn, VA. In 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his revision.
Soering fell out with his father at that time, and hasn't since spoken
Six applications for early release from prison (the
latest in August 2010) were rejected, as well as any requests for a
transfer to a prison in Germany. Soering's former girlfriend was
sentenced to ninety years imprisonment (one 45-year sentence for each
murder, served consecutively). She has a mandatory release in 2032
when she will be 68.
Soering has published books and articles on the
topics of meditation during his time in prison, justice and prison
conditions in the U.S. His third book in 2007 received the first prize
of the Catholic Press Association of North America in the category
Soering v United Kingdom 11 Eur. Ct.
H.R. (ser. A) (1989) is a landmark judgment of the European Court of
Human Rights (ECtHR) which established that extradition of a young
German national to the United States to face charges of capital murder
violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
guaranteeing the right against inhuman and degrading treatment.
The applicant, Jens Soering, is a German national,
born in 1966, who was brought by his parents to the United States at
age eleven. In 1984, he was an 18-year old honor student at the
University of Virginia, where he became good friends with Elizabeth
Haysom, a Canadian national two years his elder.
Haysom's parents, William Reginald Haysom and Nancy
Astor Haysom, lived near the university, in Boonsboro, and were
against their daughter's relationship with Soering. According to the
account provided later to local police, Soering and Elizabeth Haysom
decided to kill Haysom's parents; and, to divert suspicion, they
rented a car in Charlottesville and drove to Washington D.C. On 30
March 1985, Soering drove to the Haysom residence and dined with the
unsuspecting couple. During or after dinner, he picked a quarrel and
viciously attacked them with a knife. Both were found with their
throats slit and with stab and slash wounds to the neck and body.
In October 1985, Soering and Elizabeth Haysom fled
to Europe; and, on 30 April 1986, they were arrested in England on
charges of cheque fraud. Six weeks later, a grand jury of the Circuit
Court of Bedford County, Virginia, indicted Soering with the capital
murder of the Haysoms, as well as their separate non-capital murders.
On 11 August 1986, the United States requested
extradition for the pair, based on the 1972 extradition treaty. A
warrant was issued under section 8 of the Extradition Act 1870 for the
arrest of Soering, and he was committed to await the Home Secretary's
order to extradite him to the United States.
Soering filed a petition for habeas corpus with the
Divisional Court and requested permission for judicial review of the
decision to commit him, arguing that the Extradition Act 1870 did not
authorise extradition for a capital charge. He also cited article IV
of the US-UK extradition treaty, which provides that an extradition
request for an offence carrying the death penalty can be refused if
the requesting country has not given "assurances [...] that the death
penalty will not be carried out." An assurance had been provided by
the Commonwealth Attorney of Bedford County; but Soering contended it
was worthless. On 11 December 1987, Lord Justice Lloyd in the
Divisional Court admitted that the assurance "leaves something to be
desired" but refused the request for judicial review, stating that
Soering's request was premature, as the Home Secretary had not yet
accepted the assurance.
Soering appealed to the Judicial Committee of the
House of Lords, which rejected his claim on 30 June 1988. He, then,
petitioned the Home Secretary without success, the latter authorising
extradition on 3 August 1988.
Anticipating this outcome, Soering had filed a
claim with the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR) on 9 July
1988, asserting that he would face inhuman and degrading treatment
contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights ("the
Convention") were he to be extradited to the USA, it being likely that
the death penalty would be applied.
Soering's arguments that the use by a non-Convention
State of the death penalty would engage the right to life were novel,
in that Article 2(1) of the Convention expressly permits the use of
the death penalty, and Article 3 had never been interpreted to bring
the death penalty, per se, within the prohibition of "inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment". The applicant, therefore, sought
to make it clear that this was not the simple application of a
punishment prescribed by law, but rather his exposure to the death row
phenomenon, where he would be kept in detention for an unknown period,
awaiting execution. The ECHR requested that no extradition take place
pending the deliverance of its judgment.
European Commission of Human Rights
Soering's application was declared admissible on 10
November 1988, and the European Commission of Human Rights gave its
judgment on 19 January 1989. It decided, by six votes to five, that in
this particular case the extradition would not constitute inhuman or
degrading treatment. It did, however, accept that the extradition of a
person to a country "where it is certain or where there is a serious
risk that the person will be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment
the deportation or extradition would, in itself, under such
circumstances constitute inhuman treatment."
Court of Human Rights
On 7 July 1989, the European Court of Human Rights
(ECHR) handed down a unanimous judgment affirming the Commission's
conclusion that Article 3 could be engaged by the extradition process
and that the extraditing state could be responsible for the breach
where it is aware of a real risk that the person may be subject to
inhuman or degrading treatment.
Amnesty International intervened in the case and
submitted that, in the light of "evolving standards in Western Europe
regarding the existence and use of the death penalty", this punishment
should be considered as inhuman and degrading and was therefore
effectively prohibited by Article 3. This was not accepted by the ECHR,
as the Convention does allow for the death penalty's use in certain
circumstances. It followed that Article 3 could not stand in the way
of the extradition of a suspect simply because they might be subject
to the death penalty.
However, even if the extradition itself would not
constitute a breach of Article 3, such factors as the execution method,
the detainee's personal circumstances, the sentence's
disproportionality to the gravity of the crime, and conditions of
detention could all violate Article 3. To answer this question, the
Court had to determine whether there was a "real risk" of Soering's
being executed. Relying on arguments by the Attorney-General for
England and Wales, the ECHR did not give much weight to U.S.
authorities' assurance that the Commonwealth of Virginia would not
seek the death penalty.
Departing from the Commission's ruling, the ECHR
concluded that the "death row phenomenon" did breach Article 3. They
highlighted four factors that contributed to the violation:
The length of detention prior to execution
Conditions on death row
Soering's age and mental condition
The possibility of his extradition to Germany
As the ECHR concluded:
[H]aving regard to the very long period of time spent on death row
in such extreme conditions, with the ever present and mounting
anguish of awaiting execution of the death penalty, and to the
personal circumstances of the applicant, especially his age and
mental state at the time of the offence, the applicant's extradition
to the United States would expose him to a real risk of treatment
going beyond the threshold set by Article 3. A further consideration
of relevance is that in the particular instance the legitimate
purpose of extradition could be achieved by another means [extradition
or deportation to Germany], which would not involve suffering of
such exceptional intensity or duration.
The U.K. government obtained further assurances
from the U.S. regarding the death penalty before extraditing Soering
to Virginia. He was tried and convicted of the first degree murders of
the Haysoms and, on 4 September 1990, sentenced to two consecutive
life terms. He is serving his sentence at the Buckingham Correctional
Center in Dillwyn, Virginia.
Elizabeth Haysom did not contest her extradition
from the U.K. and pled guilty to conspiring to kill her parents. On 6
October 1987, the court sentenced her to 45-years-per-count to be
served consecutively. She is serving her sentence at the Fluvanna
Correctional Center for Women.
Soering v. United Kingdom is important in
It enlarges the scope of a state's responsibility
for breaches of the Convention. A signatory State must now consider
consequences of returning an individual to a third country where he
might face treatment that breaches the Convention. This is
notwithstanding that the ill-treatment may be beyond its control, or
even that assurances have been provided that no ill-treatment has
By finding a breach of the Convention on the
territory of a non-signatory State, the Court considerably expanded
the obligation to all States. Not only are signatories responsible
for consequences of extradition suffered outside their jurisdiction,
but this jurisdiction implicitly extends to actions in non-signatory
States. The Convention also overrides agreements concluded with such
The Court's approach to the death penalty, itself
permitted by the Convention, may reduce its use by non-signatory
States that seek to extradite suspects from signatory States. The
decision makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the US and other
capital punishment countries to extradite suspects on capital
charges from signatory States.
Haysom murders, 20 years ago today: blood sweat
Starting in 1985, the Haysom double murder case
ranged from Virginia to England and ignited a three-year legal battle
By Jat Conley - Roanoke.com
April 3, 2005
Carl Wells remembers it clearly.
Retired now to his 200-plus-acre farm just outside
Bedford, Wells, 69, was Bedford County's sheriff 20 years ago today
when friends found the brutally stabbed bodies of Derek and Nancy
Haysom in their Boonsboro home.
"It was about as bad a crime scene as you'd want to
look at," he said.
The discovery of the bodies touched off a criminal
investigation that led from Virginia to England and ignited a three-year
Beyond the sheer violence of the act came the
shocking discovery that the affluent couple's college-age daughter,
Elizabeth, and her German boyfriend, Jens Soering, both honor students
at the University of Virginia, were responsible for the crime.
The slain couple's ties to South Africa and Canada,
along with Soering's father being a West German diplomat, caused a
flurry of national and international media attention.
In Bedford, the case was the talk of the town.
"Wherever you went, people were talking about it,"
said Carol Black, who has been the county's Circuit Court clerk for 21
years. "When you put it all together, it was all so different than
anything else that had ever happened."
Chuck Reid, one of the lead investigators on the
case, had worked other homicides for the sheriff's office, but the
Haysom case was different.
"They don't stick in my mind like that one does,"
Reid, now 53 and a captain with the Blue Ridge Regional Jail
Authority's Moneta annex, said last week.
Haysom, now 40, pleaded guilty in 1987 to
conspiring to kill her parents and is serving a 90-year sentence at
the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy.
Soering, now 38, was convicted in 1990 on two
counts of first-degree murder during a three-week trial that was
televised on late-night TV and drew a throng of spectators who brought
sack lunches to avoid giving up their seats in the packed courtroom.
He is serving two life terms at the Brunswick Correctional Center in
Over the last two decades, books and cable
television documentaries have been produced about the relationship
between the two young lovers that led to murder.
Bedford County officials marveled recently at how
quickly the time has passed since the killings.
Soering feels differently.
"I'm not aware of anybody in prison who thinks that
20 years goes by quickly," Soering said during an interview last month.
'A real whodunit'
For Wells and his small staff, examining the crime
scene that Wednesday afternoon in 1985 yielded few clues.
"This was a real whodunit," said Ricky Gardner, 49,
who is a captain now with the sheriff's office. Back then, he was 29
years old and had spent the past five years as a road deputy before
Wells promoted him to investigator a few months before the murders.
When authorities stepped into the house that day,
they found Derek Haysom lying on his left side near the front of the
two-story brick and wood home with dozens of stab wounds to his torso,
his throat slit, his face disfigured with cuts. In the kitchen lay
Nancy Haysom, face down, her throat also cut, with similar stab wounds.
Blood stained the floors of the home.
There was no sign of forced entry or robbery. The
couple appeared to have sat down to dinner before they were killed,
and they had been drinking quite a bit. Autopsies on the bodies
determined both had 0.22 percent blood-alcohol levels.
Wells made Gardner and Reid the lead investigators
on the case, and they would spend several months, work 12-hour days
and chase down a number of false leads before turning their focus on
Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering.
Derek W.R. Haysom was 72 when he was murdered.
Nancy Haysom was 53. Tall and robust, Derek Haysom's appearance not
only conjured up comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, but his actions also
exemplified the famous author's creed of grace under pressure. South
African by birth, Haysom fought for the British behind enemy lines in
the Middle East in World War II. He rose to become a powerful South
African steel company executive and later moved to Nova Scotia at the
request of the Canadian government to turn around a failing national
steel mill there.
Beautiful as well as intelligent and adventuresome,
Nancy Astor Benedict Haysom was raised in Lynchburg among privileged
family. She had been all over the world with her father, a geologist,
before marrying Derek Haysom in South Africa in 1960.
Between them, they had five children from prior
Born in 1964, Elizabeth Haysom inherited her
mother's beauty, and by the time her parents retired to the rural,
upper-class community of Boonsboro just outside Lynchburg in 1982, she
was a bright teenager who had been reared in exclusive English
She also harbored deep-rooted resentment against
her parents' overbearing control over everything she did, Haysom later
In the fall of 1984, the 20-year-old Haysom
enrolled in an honors program at the University of Virginia, about an
hour from her parents' home.
Soon, she was seen hanging out with Soering, a self-described
socially awkward and insecure 18-year-old West German student with
thick glasses who was a Jefferson Scholar, which afforded him a
prestigious academic scholarship.
It would be that insecurity and awkwardness that
would lead Soering to make what he now calls "the mistake of my life."
Investigators close in
In the absence of substantial physical evidence,
Gardner and Reid began to focus on what little they had, including a
bloody footprint on the Haysoms' floor.
"We talked to everybody that we could to come up
with a motive for why these people were so brutally murdered," Gardner
Wells took the unusual step of issuing weekly press
releases to newspaper and television reporters starved for any tidbit
of information, but he didn't want to reveal that family and friends
of the Haysoms were considered suspects.
"There are certain things in the house that only we
know and the person or persons who were there know," he told The
Roanoke Times & World-News in a story about a week after the bodies
were found. "I want to keep a couple of aces up my sleeve."
Neighbors of the Haysoms, scared that they too were
in danger, latched onto any gossip about the case, including one
theory that the murders were related to a satanic cult.
"They were locking their door and almost afraid to
go to sleep," Wells said.
Gardner initially dismissed Elizabeth Haysom as a
But as other leads in the case were examined and
dismissed, he and Reid focused on her whereabouts at the time of the
murders. She told Gardner she and Soering had rented a car and driven
to Washington, D.C. The mileage on the car, however, showed it had
been driven hundreds of miles more than a round trip from
Charlottesville to Washington.
Haysom said she and Soering had gotten lost on the
way and spent time driving around Washington.
The discrepancy, coupled with Haysom's indifferent
behavior during interviews and at her parents' funeral, warranted
"We had suspicions her activities weren't right and
neither were his," Wells said. "They didn't show the real concern that
they should have from the start. I'm a firm believer that a person's
body will tell you more than their tongue."
"She didn't seem to be upset about anything really
at all," Reid said.
While Haysom agreed to submit samples of her
fingerprints and blood to police, Soering refused. He feared he would
be deported or his family would somehow get in trouble if West German
authorities found out he was involved in a murder investigation,
Gardner said. At the time, Soering's father was vice consul at the
West German consulate in Detroit.
The investigators had learned through interviews
with Haysom family members, including Elizabeth, that Derek Haysom
didn't approve of Soering dating his daughter.
In an interview the first week of October 1985,
Gardner and Reid confronted Soering about his involvement in the
"We did the good cop-bad cop thing," Gardner said.
"I called him everything but a liar."
But Soering stood by the couple's story that they
were miles away at the time of the murders. Eventually, he promised to
return a week or so later for a follow-up interview, Gardner said.
Instead, Soering and Haysom disappeared from UVa
and left the country separately for Europe.
Seven months later, short on money, they were
arrested outside London in May 1986 on check fraud charges. British
police searched the couple's apartment. They found bogus passports,
wigs, mustaches and fraudulent checks, as well as letters to each
other and a diary that led them to believe a murder had been committed,
Faye Massie, who works in the Bedford County
Circuit Court clerk's office now, was a secretary at the sheriff's
office in 1986 when she answered a phone call from a British
"He said, 'Have you all got an unsolved murder?'"
Massie could hardly contain her excitement. "I said, 'Hold on, let me
get the sheriff.'"
Gardner and Jim Updike, who was the county's
commonwealth's attorney at the time and is now a Circuit Court judge,
flew to England to interrogate Haysom and Soering.
Confessions soon followed.
According to Soering's confession, he drove the
rental car alone to the Haysom home to commit the murders, Gardner
said. He wounded Derek Haysom first after he was chastised by Haysom
for dating his daughter. Then he tackled and killed Nancy Haysom in
the kitchen before finishing off Derek Haysom.
Soering has said over the years that he was in
Washington when the murders occurred, and that he confessed only to
save Elizabeth Haysom from being sentenced to death - and under the
mistaken belief that he would be deported to Germany, where he would
be tried as a youth and face a limited jail sentence.
"My feeling was, 10 years of my life was worth
saving Elizabeth's life," he said.
But Elizabeth Haysom ended her relationship with
Soering not long after her arrest and told authorities that Soering
had committed the murders. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory to
the murders before the fact in 1987 in a Bedford County courtroom.
Soering was initially charged with capital murder.
He fought extradition to America for three years, backed at one point
by the European Court of Human Rights, until the charge, which carries
the death penalty, was dropped.
He returned to Bedford County in 1990 and pleaded
not guilty to two charges of first-degree murder. Using Soering's
confession and Haysom's testimony, prosecutor Jim Updike successfully
convinced a jury that his footprint resembled the bloody footprint
found at the scene.
He was sentenced to two life terms.
For the first 15 years behind bars, in maximum and
super-maximum security prisons, Soering said, "I saw myself as the
victim of a young woman who was mentally ill."
But lately, his devotion to Christian meditation
has allowed him to conclude that he bears some responsibility for what
happened, though he still maintains his innocence.
"I could have prevented this crime," he said. "If I
had not been as cowardly as I had been, this double murder would not
He was denied parole in 2003 but is eligible again
"I sort of feel sorry for him," Gardner said. "He
let this relationship with this girl ruin his life. I'm thoroughly
convinced that he has convinced himself that he didn't do it."
Haysom has said little publicly since her arrest
and declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
She has been turned down twice for parole but is
eligible each year until 2032, when she will have to be released under
the state's mandatory parole guidelines. A Canadian citizen, she will
face a federal deportation hearing when she is either paroled or
The former honors students continue to display
their intelligence through their writings. Soering has written "The
Way of the Prisoner," about Christian meditation, and "An Expensive
Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform From an
Insider's Perspective," as well as a number of compelling articles on
prison violence. His third book, "Convict Christ," is due to be
Haysom, too, has written about prison life and her
religious faith for magazines and newspapers.
Reid and Gardner are unflinching in their belief
that they solved the crime. Gardner has been interviewed so many times
over the years that he keeps a special briefcase with crime scene
photos, copies of letters and newspaper clippings about the case.
"Both of them are right where they should be,"
Gardner said. "If ever there were a pair that need to be punished,
No Hope for Jens Soering
Prisoner's story shows how to surviv
LAWRENCEVILLE - In some ways, prisoner No. 179212
is like so many others here at Brunswick Correctional Center.
For one thing, he insists he didn't do it. For
another, he's desperate to get out.
But in other ways, Jens Soering stands apart from
most of the Virginia prison system's 31,000 inmates. And not just
because he is serving a double life sentence for a pair of grisly
He has attracted dozens of influential supporters -
including the German ambassador to the United States and the Most Rev.
Walter F. Sullivan, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of
Richmond. They and others hail him as an up-and-coming theologian and
Soering has written four books chronicling his
spiritual odyssey and telling harrowing tales of life behind bars. He
is featured in two documentaries now in the works and was the subject
of a profile in a major German newspaper last month. A German
television network is preparing a program on his story.
Soering, 40, has spent more than half his life in
prison. Sometimes the prospect of all those months and years
stretching ahead has made him feel like doing to himself what he was
convicted of doing to a prominent Lynchburg couple one night in March
The sensational case had all the elements - money,
privilege, obsessive love, gruesome violence and an international
flight from the authorities. It made Soering the biggest news that
part of Virginia had seen in ages. He was Geraldo material, a true-crime
heavyweight. He was 24-hour cable gabfest fodder before there were 24-hour
To understand what Soering has become, you have to
start back in the fall of 1984. It was then, on the campus of the
University of Virginia, that a brilliant but nerdy mop-haired kid with
oversized glasses and a German accent became mesmerized by an older
Elizabeth Haysom was cool and sophisticated and
worldly - in short, everything Jens Soering was not.
The oldest child of a German diplomat, Soering had
spent his teen years at an exclusive private school in Atlanta, where
his father worked in the German consulate.
His senior year, he edited the high school
newspaper and was named best English student - even though his native
language is German.
He was one of 12 students to enter U.Va. in the
fall of 1984 on a Jefferson Scholarship - a prestigious four-year ride
awarded for academic achievement.
His social development, however, lagged far behind
his intellectual ability.
"Nobody wanted to go out with me in high school -
nobody," Soering said in a recent prison interview. "I had to struggle
to get a prom date."
Soering speaks with quiet intensity. Only the
faintest hint of his accent remains. He still looks youthful, but his
body is sinewy from years of working out in prison gyms.
During orientation he met Haysom, daughter of a
retired Canadian industrialist. Within a few months, the pair were
Two years older, Haysom charmed Soering with her
bohemian good looks, refined British accent and tales of a tempestuous
past. As a teenager, she told him, she became addicted to heroin, ran
away from an exclusive English boarding school and traipsed through
Europe on a months-long fling with a lesbian lover.
It was heady stuff for the bookish, virginal
"She was the kind of girl your mother really didn't
want you to date," he said. "That little whiff of danger was
What happened one weekend in March 1985 depends on
who's telling the story - and when.
Since 1990, Soering has told this account:
During a getaway to Washington, D.C., Haysom
confessed to him that she had been unable to kick her drug habit and
had run up a debt with her dealer. To pay it off, she had agreed to
carry a shipment of drugs from Washington to Charlottesville. In case
word ever got back to her parents, she asked Soering to establish an
alibi by attending movies in her absence, buying two tickets each time
and keeping the stubs.
Some 10 hours later, around 2 a.m., Soering says,
Haysom showed up at their hotel room, ashen-faced.
"She kept saying four things over and over: 'I've
killed my parents. The drugs made me do it. They deserved it anyway.
You've got to help me avoid the electric chair.' "
Soering says he then made the biggest mistake of
his life. Believing - wrongly - that his father's diplomatic status
would shield him from prosecution, he agreed to confess to the murders
if it became necessary to save his lover's life.
"A knight in shining armor, sacrificing myself for
her. That's how I saw myself," he said.
Haysom declined to be interviewed for this story.
In police interrogations and trial testimony, she told varying
accounts of that weekend. But on one crucial point, her story is just
the opposite of Soering's: It was he who drove to Lynchburg and
murdered Derek and Nancy Haysom while she stayed behind in Washington.
Whoever did it, the crime shook Lynchburg to its
roots because of its brutality - the Haysoms were slashed and stabbed
repeatedly and nearly decapitated - and the victims' prominence. Nancy
Haysom came from an old Virginia family and was a distant relation of
Lady Astor, the famed socialite who became the first female member of
the British House of Commons.
That fall, as investigators closed in, the pair
fled to Europe. Soering later wrote about their six months on the lam
in an online autobiography, "Mortal Thoughts." They created fake IDs,
wrecked a rental car in Yugoslavia, stayed in a hostel in Bangkok, and
touched down in Singapore, Bombay and Moscow before settling in London,
where they were arrested in April 1986 for check fraud.
When British police searched their flat, the pair's
penchant for the written word came back to haunt them. There were
reams of writings, some of which raised the officers' suspicions. A
diary contained references to wiping off fingerprints and being
interviewed by detectives.
In 16 hours of interrogations over four days, with
no lawyer present, Soering reluctantly confessed to the murders.
Haysom, too, confessed briefly, then recanted. From
then on, she stuck with Soering's account.
Examining the pair in custody, two English
psychiatrists diagnosed Haysom as a borderline schizophrenic and
pathological liar. Soering was found to be a sufferer of folie a deux
(literally "a madness shared by two"), a rare syndrome in which
psychotic symptoms are transmitted from one person to another in a
One of the doctors wrote: "Miss Haysom had a
stupefying and mesmeric effect on Soering which led to an abnormal
psychological state in which he became unable to think rationally."
In 1987, Haysom waived extradition and returned to
Virginia, where she pleaded guilty as an accessory to murder and was
sentenced to 90 years in prison.
At her sentencing hearing, questions still abounded
about what really happened on the night of the slayings. Her half-brother
Howard Haysom, a Houston doctor, testified:
"I think that she has lied to me in the past and,
frankly, continues to lie.... I think Elizabeth was in the house at
the time of the crime."
The state's theory of the case said otherwise: that
Haysom planted the idea of murder, then stayed behind while Soering
carried it out.
Soering fought extradition for three years before
being returned to Virginia in 1990 to face trial - an event that
became a media sensation.
When the jury delivered the guilty verdict and the
judge asked if he had anything to say, Soering protested: "I'm
innocent." That night, he wrote later, he tied a plastic bag over his
head in a halfhearted attempt at suicide.
Then began 10 years of appeals on a variety of
grounds - ineffective counsel, for one. Soering's lead trial attorney,
Richard Neaton, admitted in bar disciplinary proceedings that his "ability
to practice law was materially impaired by an emotional or mental
disability" during the time he represented Soering. Neaton was
disbarred in 2001.
His appeals exhausted, Soering is technically
eligible for parole because his conviction occurred before Virginia
abolished it in 1995. But even he acknowledges that parole is unlikely.
At a hearing in August, the parole board member
assigned to the case slept through much of the testimony. When
Soering's supporters protested, the board apologized, held a second
hearing, and denied parole.
Within two weeks of the Supreme Court's rejection
of his final appeal in 2001, Soering began work on what became the
first of four books he has written behind bars.
That first book, "The Way of the Prisoner," and its
successors present a grim picture of prison life - a Darwinian
struggle for survival where the strong prey on the weak.
Sexual assault is common and widely ignored by
guards, he says. One of the first sights he saw on entering the
Virginia prison system, he wrote, was the rape of a young man by his
cellmate as a dozen other inmates stood by, cheering and applauding.
When he reached Mecklenburg Correctional Center in
the summer of 1991, Soering was just turning 25. "I was nothing more
than another 'fresh fish,' " he wrote, "a pudgy guppy among highly
experienced and hungry sharks."
He tells of mentally ill inmates who earn cigarette
money by performing sex acts in portable toilets in the exercise yard,
dubbed the "love shack" by inmates. One such inmate once tried to
castrate himself with an old razor blade.
Soering was moved to the Brunswick compound,
halfway between Emporia and South Hill, in 2000. One day in April
2004, Soering wrote, he returned to his cell after breakfast to
discover that his cellmate, "Keith" (not his real name), had hanged
himself with a rope made of shoestrings, tied to Soering's top bunk
"What many of the rest of us have been asking
ourselves," he wrote, "is why we are not following Keith's way of
Soering says he had suicidal thoughts constantly
for 14 years until his spiritual renewal, and used to keep 200 to 300
aspirin tablets in a Metamucil jar that traveled with him to three
different prisons, ready to be used for an overdose.
Ultimately, he says, he concluded that he had three
options: "Commit suicide, join the prison culture - with the drugs,
violence and homosexuality - or do something positive."
Something positive he could do, he decided, was
write books. The result is an unusual inside glimpse by an articulate
observer into a world that is foreign to most Americans.
Soering's second book, "An Expensive Way to Make
Bad People Worse," is a call for sweeping prison reform. He argues
that hundreds of thousands of inmates - including the elderly, the
mentally ill and nonviolent drug offenders - should not be behind bars
because it is unnecessary, expensive and often counterproductive.
He renews that theme in his fourth book, "The
Church of the Second Chance," due out this summer.
Sales of his books have been modest, and he says
earnings have been barely enough to cover the cost of getting the
manuscripts typed. A state law allowing seizure of profits from
convicts' books has not been invoked in his case.
His only other source of income is a job in the
prison gym, where he cleans toilets and runs a fitness program for
Soering's newest book contains an account of his
six weeks in segregation - "the hole," inmates call it - in the fall
of 2004. Inmates in segregation are kept in their cells except for
three showers and three one-hour exercise periods per week. Though it
is normally used as punishment for disciplinary infractions, Soering
was never charged with any misconduct and says he was never told why
he was placed in segregation. The Department of Corrections had no
comment on his account.
While in "the hole," Soering says, he saw a wide
range of aberrant behavior among segregated inmates: drumming on their
sinks all night, exposing themselves to nurses making their morning
rounds, gouging chunks of flesh out of their forearms with sharpened
pieces of plastic, smearing the walls of their cells with feces.
Toward the end of his time in segregation, Soering
was part of a tableau unique in the annals of the Virginia prison
system. Shackled hand and foot, standing in front of a phalanx of
guards, he received Communion from Bishop Sullivan.
"I wish I'd had a camera," said Sullivan, who wrote
the foreword to Soering's third book, "The Convict Christ."
"He's a very intelligent man, and he writes well,"
Does he believe Soering's claim of innocence?
"Yes, because I find him believable on all other
The day after Sullivan's visit, Soering was
released from segregation.
Interlaced with his accounts of prison life,
Soering's books trace his spiritual journey from agnosticism to
Buddhism to Christianity. At times they become dense theological
treatises, drawing on the works of Christian thinkers like Martin
Luther, St. Augustine, John Calvin and St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I spent six or seven years reading theology books,"
Soering said. "Finally that stopped working for me. Then I discovered
Centering Prayer. It helped me deal with the reality of my situation."
The meditative technique, which he traces back to
ancient Christian mystics, has helped him survive prison by revealing
"the purifying and spiritualizing effects of my suffering," he wrote.
He sits quietly in his cell, wearing earplugs to
muffle the cacophony of prison life.
Breathing deeply and deliberately, he silently
chants a single word - "Jesus" - over and over and over again. His aim
is to reach a stiller level of consciousness and, ultimately, to
dissolve his conscious self and experience the presence of God.
He has been doing this three times a day for six
years - picking a word, any word, and repeating it for 40 minutes. He
says it has saved him from near-certain suicide.
At times, he wrote, he has "felt or seen God as a
warm, golden-green, glowing light."
Central to his mission as a follower of Christ,
Soering wrote, was "the voluntary acceptance of specifically
undeserved suffering" - a reference to his continued insistence that
he is innocent of murder. With no hope of overturning his conviction
in court, he has petitioned the governor for clemency.
Among those who believe his claim is his appeals
attorney, Gail Starling Marshall, a former deputy state attorney
general. In a 2003 letter to the parole board, Marshall wrote that
there had been only two occasions in her 35 years of practice when she
became convinced "to a moral certainty" that a convicted person was
One was Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded
farmhand whose conviction in a Culpeper rape-murder was overturned by
new DNA evidence. The other was Jens Soering.
"I think his story - that he really thought he was
going to be Elizabeth's romantic savior because he was so damn smart -
is very believable," Marshall said. "He was very, very smart - too
smart for his britches, as my mother used to say."
Unlike the Washington case, however, there is
apparently no possibility of a DNA-based exoneration for Soering. His
conviction was based largely on his confession and Haysom's testimony.
There were no eyewitnesses. No murder weapon was
recovered. Of the two prime suspects, only Haysom's fingerprints - not
Soering's - were found at the scene.
Interviews with jurors after the verdict indicated
that the jury was closely divided and was swayed in the end by a
smeared, bloody, sock-covered footprint recovered from the house. A
state forensic witness laid a transparent overlay of Soering's
footprint over it, indicating a similarity. It was the first Virginia
case in which such evidence had been admitted.
"It fits like a glove," the prosecutor said in his
In subsequent appeals, however, the state conceded
that the footprints "could not be sized with precision," and attorney
Marshall secured affidavits from two experts who called the state's
footprint evidence misleading. One labeled it "completely worthless"
and said the bloody sockprint was closer in size to Haysom's foot than
Maj. Ricky Gardner, who led the investigation as a
rookie BedfordCounty sheriff's detective 22 years ago, keeps a copy of
the bloody sockprint in a thick loose-leaf binder of memorabilia from
the case. He still gets several requests a year to give presentations
about it to college classes and community gatherings.
Gardner remains certain of Soering's guilt: "There's
no doubt in my mind. I don't have any trouble sleeping at night; I
never have. Yes, I wish we'd had more physical evidence, but you've
got to play the cards you're dealt."
Soering says his years of Christian meditation have
helped him come to see that he bears a degree of moral guilt for the
slayings. He possibly could have prevented the crime, he says, by
encouraging his girlfriend to seek professional counseling.
He also admits he is not totally innocent, even in
the legal sense, because he helped cover up the murders. For years, he
says, he prayed - individually, by name - for the Haysoms' siblings
"I hurt all those people terribly," he said. "I
should have told the truth from the very beginning."
Haysom will qualify for mandatory release in 2032,
when she is 68. She has maintained a low profile since the trials,
shunning all interviews.
Like Soering, she has found a literary outlet. For
the past four years she has written a column, "Glimpses from Inside,"
for the Fluvanna Review, a weekly newspaper published near Fluvanna
Correctional Center for Women, where she is housed.
As a double lifer, Soering has no mandatory release
date. Barring parole or clemency, he will die in prison.
In his forthcoming book, he describes watching,
every few months, as another fellow lifer is wheeled out of prison on
"We are being slowly killed," he wrote. "Virtually
every one of us will leave state custody in a body bag.... Capital
punishment on the installment plan!... America, congratulate yourself:
You have managed to invent a punishment worse than death."
In his first book, he wrote: "I would much rather
be executed by whatever means the state finds convenient."
Soering's plea for release has drawn dozens of
letters of support. Prominent among them is one from Klaus Scharioth,
the German ambassador to the United States. Since he is a German
citizen, Soering would be deported to Germany if released.
"There is a good chance that Mr. Soering may
develop into an active and contributing member of society," Scharioth
wrote. "German church and government officials have already pledged to
help Mr. Soering find a place to live and work and to otherwise help
with his reintegration."
Many supportive letters have come from priests,
nuns and other religious figures, some of whom say Soering's example
has enriched their own spiritual lives.
One is Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk at a
monastery in the Colorado Rockies who is one of the world's leading
proponents of Christian contemplative prayer. He has visited Soering
twice, once with a film crew working on a documentary.
A Charlotte, N.C., producer has bought the rights
to the trial footage and is also planning a film on Soering.
At Brunswick, Soering organized a Centering Prayer
group for inmates. The twice-monthly gatherings attract between five
and 15 prisoners who sit silently in a circle.
In his newest book, Soering writes that he knows he
is blessed compared with many of his fellow prisoners: He has a rich
spiritual life, a literary outlet, friends and supporters on the
"Yet even I, with all my blessings, feel the vise
of time squeezing the life breath out of me.... Time is a rock on your
chest that crushes you slowly, slowly."