UPDATE: 15 July. Full disclosure: this post has gotten some attention since I posted it. I’ve made a number of revisions to it after correspondence with people very familiar with the case, who graciously corrected some errors. I’m also reading ‘Beyond Reason‘, the 1990 book about the case, and may update the post a bit more on the basis of that and other reading. So please be aware that the post is evolving a bit. The overall argument remains the same, but hit refresh if you spot an error, maybe I’ll have corrected it in the meantime.
If you are German and have heard the name Jens Soering, a German man serving a life sentence for double murder in a Virginia prison, you probably think he is innocent. Most stories in the German press about Soering — and there are hundreds — simply assume his innocence. A 2016 documentary co-directed by a journalist for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, called Das Versprechen (The Promise) in German and Killing for Love in English, more or less openly attempts to convince viewers Soering is innocent; one representative review called it (g) a “plea for Soering’s innocence” which “not only calls Soering’s case into question, but the whole American justice system”.
The documentary received saturation coverage in the German press, many reviews declared that it was totally convincing and that Soering is innocent and must be freed. Soering’s case remains a political theme: The above video contains an interview with a senior German CDU politician who visited Soering in Virginia and speaks of the “exculpatory evidence” in the case.
This organized German media campaign to free Jens Soering is another embarrassing failure of German journalism — as bad, in its way, as the Claas Relotius case. To be sure, reports about the Soering case do not involve total fabrications. But they are still biased, unreliable journalism. German reporters, almost without exception, have uncritically recycled the theories put forward by Soering and his supporters without any real skepticism, critical examination, or context. As a result, millions of Germans have become convinced that Soering is innocent and received an unfair trial from the state of Virginia.
This is untrue. Soering was fairly tried and convicted. The evidence supporting his guilt is ample. The theories supporting his innocence are contradictory and unconvincing. They fall apart upon the slightest skeptical scrutiny. I’ll show this here.
I’ve split this post up for easier navigation. First, the background. Then, the theories of Soering’s innocence and why they haven’t convinced any courts. Then I’ll conclude with some criticisms of the German media.
Let me put my cards on the table: Although I think Soering is guilty, I oppose capital punishment and life-without-parole sentences. I think Soering should be released from prison within the next 5 or 10 years, because (1) serving three decades in prison is an appropriate punishment for his extremely severe crime; (2) Soering has been a model prisoner, and (3) he poses no evident danger of future violence.
Part I: The Background
This is a brief sketch of the case. More detailed ones can be found in many sources, including in several books written about the case. In 1985, Jens Soering was the young son of a German diplomat (Soering was born in Thailand) and a student at the University of Virginia (UVA) in the United States. By all accounts highly intelligent, he received a full four-year Jefferson Scholarship to study there. He wasn’t an exchange student; he was enrolled as a normal foreign student.
At UVA, Soering fell in love with Elizabeth Haysom — an attractive, intelligent, psychologically disturbed fellow student at UVA. Haysom’s parents, Derek and Nancy, were well-off financially, and lived in a house called Loose Chippings, near Lynchburg, Virginia. Haysom, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and who used drugs (which ones and how much are matters of dispute), hated and resented her parents. Haysom claims her mother had sexually abused her. Her parents also disapproved of her relationship with Soering. By all accounts Soering and Haysom had a profound and disturbed attachment to each other, a true folie à deux.
Together, Soering and Haysom devised a plot that Soering would confront Haysom’s parents and, if they maintained their opposition to the relationship, kill them. To create an alibi, Haysom would claim she and Soering had rented a car and driven from Charlottesville, Virginia (where UVA is located) to go to the movies in Washington, DC. On March 30, 1985, Soering drove from Washington, DC to Loose Chippings and confronted Haysom’s parents. The conversation escalated, and Soering decided to kill them. The attack took the Haysoms by surprise. Soering stabbed them both to death, inflicting numerous deep wounds. He then disposed of his clothes and the murder weapon, and cleaned up as many surfaces as he could. He then returned to Elizabeth Haysom. They continued their affair.
The physical evidence at the crime scene was meager: the murder weapon and objects touched by the intruder had been removed and were never found. Further, luminol testing revealed the killer had visited the bathroom to clean off bloodstains. The killer had also wiped around the massive bloodstains to try to obscure footprints. Luminol also showed the killer had left the house by the front door, then returned inside. For months police pursued other leads, but they began to concentrate on Soering and Haysom after finding out that the rental car Soering had used during the crime had exactly the right number of excess miles on it for a trip from Washington, DC, to the Haysoms’ house. Neither Soering nor Haysom had ever been able to convincingly explain this fact.
Police continued to investigate in other directions, without enough evidence to charge Soering or Haysom. In mid-October 1985, they asked Soering and Haysom to provide blood, fingerprint, and shoe samples. Haysom complied, but Soering delayed. Shortly thereafter, they both fled the country — Soering taking care to carefully wipe his own fingerprints from his residence and auto beforehand. Of course, once the pair fled the country with no warning, they became prime suspects. The pair traveled the world for several months, then were arrested later in London on check-fraud charges. Soering gave consent to the London police to search their apartment, and found large caches of letters Soering and Haysom had exchanged, plus a joint travel diary they had kept. Highly intelligent and articulate, both Soering and Haysom were prolific writers. The London police, after reading suspicious statements in Soering and Haysoms’ diaries and correspondence, called up Ricky Gardner, one of the detectives on the case in Virginia, and asked “Are Elizabeth Haysom’s parents dead?”.
Soering was then questioned in London by British, American, and German law enforcement regarding the Haysom murders. He confessed to the murders repeatedly. A blog maintained by close observer of the case notes all the times Soering confessed:
In the four years between his arrest and eventual extradition to Virginia in 1990, Soering confessed in detail or acknowledged his guilt without reservation to –
English detectives Terry Wright and Ken Beever;
American detective Ricky Gardner;
his team of English lawyers;
fellow German prisoner Mathias Schroeder;
psychiatrists Dr John Hamilton and Dr Henrietta Bullard;
a German prosecutor from Bonn, Herr Koenig;
his German defence counsel, Dr Andreas Frieser;
the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, London;
the Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court;
the European Commission of Human Rights;
the European Court of Human Rights.
He did not claim to be innocent until 1990, five years after committing the murders and four years after his arrest.
The confessions go into detail about the crime, and about Soering’s extensive clean-up after the crime. The confessions were given freely and voluntarily, and were properly admitted into evidence against him. Nor was language a difficulty: The confessions include a full transcript of a confession Soering gave in German, to a German prosecutor after private consultation with his German defense attorney, in the presence of his German criminal defense attorney. This confession has been translated into English and is available in full here (pdf). I recommend reading it. Soering clearly explains the motives for the crimes on page 32:
Prosecutor: “You are supposed to have said that you felt during the trip to Lynchburg hatred and anger for the later victims, the parents of your girlfriend, because they exercised pressure on your girlfriend to end the relationship. Is that so?”
Soering: “That is right without doubt. But this concerns a general feeling which was building up in me anyway over months…”
All of these confessions include a few statements which do not mesh with the crime-scene evidence, but many more which do. This is understandable, since Soering had been drinking before the crime, and plausibly claimed that the violent fight and murders were stressful and shocking events which blurred his memory in some respects.
Nevertheless, they also contain details which only the killer could have known. For instance, Soering said that as he left the house after committing the murders and cleaning up, he noticed that the front porch light was still burning, which might attract attention. He re-entered the house to switch it off, but could not find the switch. And in fact the switch was not near the front of the house, where one would expect it, but in the master bedroom at the rear of the house, where someone who was familiar with the house (Soering was not, having only visited it once or twice) would not know to look for it. This story was also consistent with evidence the killer had left and returned to the house.
While in the UK, Soering filed an appeal before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the UK should not be permitted to extradite him to face charges in Virginia as long as it was possible he might face the death penalty. The ECHR agreed. As a result, Virginia authorities promised not to seek the death penalty.
Soering was extradited to Virginia and tried in 1990. Elizabeth Haysom, who had earlier pled guilty and been sentenced to two 45-year prison terms, testified in great detail about the plan they concocted to create an alibi and get away with the crimes. This, unsurprisingly, has earned her Soering’s lifelong enmity. Haysom has always maintained Soering committed the crimes, although her story changed numerous times to either downplay or enhance her involvement, depending on the particular situation she found herself in. Prosecutors also introduced the many deeply incriminating statements made in letters and diaries kept by the pair. Although stopping short of a direct confession, many of them were very suspicious indeed. Soering and Haysom kept joint travel diary after fleeing the country when police became suspicious of them. In this diary, which Soering also read, Elizabeth wrote: “The case is about to be solved. Perhaps fingerprints on coffee mug used by Jens in [a police] interview gave him away…“.
Soering testified at his trial. This is always a risky idea in an American courtroom, but Soering likely had no choice, given the many detailed confessions the jury had heard. Soering, of course, disavowed those earlier confessions and claimed that Haysom committed the murders. By all accounts, he made a poor impression on the jury. He was subjected to withering cross-examination. Soering was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life prison sentences.
Soering appealed his conviction, but his confessions — which were legally obtained and admitted in evidence against him — and other evidence frustrated any chances. In 1998, a Virginia Court observed (pdf):
Additionally, in order to entertain a reasonable doubt … the jury would have to disregard the overwhelming evidence presented at Soering’s criminal trial that he alone committed the murders. For example, he confessed repeatedly in great detail, and the majority of those details fit the facts developed by the criminal investigation: the slashing of the victims’ throats compatible with the manner he said he held the knife; the injuries he sustained during the violence at the time of the murders, which injuries were later observed at the funeral; the exterior lights left burning by the murderer controlled by a switch in a back bedroom, a location unknown to a stranger to the home like Soering, but known to a family member like Elizabeth; and documentary evidence (letters and diary entries) implicating him in the crimes, just to mention a few of the many circumstances consistent with his confessions. Moreover, Soering had a motive to kill his lover’s parents, who opposed his relationship with their daughter. And, his flight to Europe after avoiding the police, resulting in the forfeiture of valuable scholarships, is also consistent with his admitted guilt.
Each court to consider the case has rejected Soering’s claims. They have held that the confessions were admitted properly, and that even if his lawyer made errors or the prosecution withheld certain pieces of evidence, those errors did not affect the outcome of the trial, given the copious evidence of Soering’s guilt.
At this time, it’s important to clear up a misconception many observers of the Soering case seem to have. They point to potential errors and flaws in the trial, and then immediately jump to the conclusion that Soering was unfairly tried and deserves a new trial, or even to walk free from prison. But this is not how the law works, either in the USA or in Germany. American courts, like courts in Germany and worldwide, will not reverse a criminal conviction merely because of a few mistaken decisions by the trial judge, or other errors.
A criminal trial is a long, complex, human-dominated process with many moving parts. Mistakes are inevitable, and occur in every trial. The justice system works with limited resources, and ordering a new trial long after someone has been convicted is a burden. Thus, appeals courts will only order a new trial if the defendant can prove his previous trial was unreliable — i.e., probably reached the wrong result. This is known as the doctrine of harmless error in the USA. An analogous doctrine in Germany is called the “doctrine of weighing” (g) (Abwägungslehre). Under this doctrine, a judge does not have to automatically ignore improperly-collected evidence. Instead, he or she should weigh various factors, including how severely the defendant’s rights were infringed, and how serious the crime is.
Thus, in American courts, like courts in Germany and worldwide, even if you prove a piece of evidence was unconstitutionally used against you in court (or some other error was made), the court will not grant you a new trial if the untainted evidence still proves your guilt of a serious crime. This is what has happened in Soering’s appeals. All of them. If Soering had been tried in Germany on the exact same evidence, he would almost certainly have been convicted, and his appeals would have been rejected just as they were in the USA.
Since his conviction, Soering has convinced himself, and a dedicated circle of followers, that he is innocent. Soering has applied for parole and pardons from Virginia governors, but has been rejected each time.
II. Why Some People Believe he is Innocent
During and after his 1990 trial, Soering and his team of supporters began assembling arguments in Soering’s favor. I’ll go through these, and briefly explain why they’re unconvincing. I’ll provide links to a few sites that discuss the case in much more depth. There are many sites devoted to supporting Soering, but only two substantial sites which are devoted to a skeptical analysis of Soering’s claims. Both are excellent. One, in English, is called Jens Soering Guilty as Charged, which pretty much sums it up. The other is in German, and is just called Jens Soering. Together, they examine and refute each of Soering’s claims to innocence.
a. Were the Confessions False?
The biggest problem for Soering by far has been his many confessions to the crime. Every court presented with the question has held that Soering confessed freely and voluntarily, without coercion and with adequate legal safeguards. Although his English was fluent at the time, he also confessed in German, in the presence of his German attorney. Aside from a few details, the confessions were consistent, and largely matched the crime-scene evidence.
A lawful confession obtained without force or fraud is the most powerful evidence in a criminal case. It’s not enough on its own to justify a conviction, but it gets you very close. These repeated confessions were the centerpiece of Soering’s criminal trial. They are routinely cited by appeals courts in dismissing his legal claims.
This is why Soering needed to come up with a story to explain why he confessed. His supporters often refer vaguely to the phenomenon of false confessions, and point to (dubious) statistics which claim up to 25% of confessions are false. But false confessions aren’t distributed randomly like lightning strikes; there are factors which explain them. The vast majority of false-confession cases involve people of limited intellectual capacity, and/or who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or severe psychological disturbance, and/or who were intimidated, tricked, or abused by interrogators. None of these things applies to Soering. Soering is highly intelligent, was sober and not psychotic, was not treated unfairly or abusively by police, was allowed to consult with an attorney in his native language, and was given all relevant warnings.
There is no reason to suspect he was tricked or forced into confessing. Quite the opposite.
So Soering came up with another story: that he confessed to protect Elizabeth Haysom, who really committed the crime. He claims that he thought, at the time he confessed, that he enjoyed some form of diplomatic immunity because his father was a diplomat. He has also sometimes claimed he believed he would be sent back to Germany and sentenced under German law, which would have imposed less drastic penalties.
None of this makes any sense. Soering was a worldly, intelligent, well-read son of a German diplomat who had lived in many different places. He surely understood that diplomatic immunity didn’t work the way he (later) claimed he thought it did. Even if he had doubts, he could have asked any of dozens of people, or simply researched the issue at the world-class library at the University of Virginia. Diplomatic immunity protects diplomats against certain charges incurred for behavior they engage in as they carry out their duties. It is absurd to imagine that anyone would believe diplomatic immunity gives the son of a diplomat the right to commit two cold-blooded murders for private reasons and get away with it scot-free. Soering was simply much too smart to have genuinely believed this.
The idea that Soering might have confessed because he thought he would be punished under German law is only slightly more convincing. He might have believed there was some sort of agreement between Germany and the USA to allow him to be prosecuted under German law. This is certainly not the case — and not how any country’s law works. If an American comes to Germany and murders two Germans on German soil, will he be sent back to America for trial? Of course not — he’ll be tried where the crime was committed. But let’s give Soering the benefit of the doubt: it’s just barely plausible he might have convinced himself that he could be tried, or sentenced, in Germany.
In any case, in his interview with the German prosecutor, Soering is obviously trying to shape his confession favorably under German law by saying he doesn’t recall exactly why or how he started the assault on the Haysoms, and refuses to answer questions about whether he brought the knife to the house (PP is the prosecutor, A is Soering):
Soering is smart enough to know that the level of premeditation of a killing is a crucial issue under German law, and he is trying to shape his confession to obscure the issue. As the prosecutor realizes. In all of his confessions, Soering gave vague answers or no answers at all to questions about the knife for the same reason.
But even if Soering thought he would be tried in Germany, this theory is completely consistent with him truthfully confessing the crimes. Elizabeth decide her parents needed to get out of their way, and he agrees, because Elizabeth has told him her parents are abusive monsters who will never allow Haysom and Soering’s relationship to flourish. Soering offers to do the deed, because (1) he thinks he might be clever enough to get away with it (he once infamously referred to the Virginia investigators as “yokels“); and (2) even if he is caught, he thinks, or at least vaguely hopes, that he will be punished in Germany and get perhaps 5-10 years in youth prison. Whereas Elizabeth might face execution, without any alternative country to flee to. So (under this theory) Soering commits the crime, serves the time in Germany, and the lovers reunite after his release. When Soering was caught he confessed to the crime, because he still thinks perhaps he might be able to be tried, or punished, in Germany (although this never happens, especially in murder cases).
It’s not a very persuasive argument, but it makes a certain kind of sense, especially when you imagine that Soering was deluded by his passionate love for a manipulative woman (if you choose to believe this; the couples’ correspondence paints a more nuanced picture). But it doesn’t entail that his confessions were false. They could just as easily have been true.
One likely reason Soering confessed is that he believed the American justice system worked similarly to the German justice system. In German criminal trials, confessions by the defendant are always taken into account by the judge during sentencing, if they are reliable and made in good faith. You will almost always get a meaningful sentence reduction for a confession in Germany. This is why German defense lawyers tell their clients to confess in many cases (something no US criminal lawyer would do unless as part of a plea bargain), and why most German criminal cases are solved by confessions.
In the USA, you can also trade a confession for a lighter sentence, but you must arrange this before the trial as a criminal plea-bargain deal. If you don’t — if you simply confess, without asking the prosecution to give you a lighter sentence — you are in a bad position. The prosecution can charge you with the maximum crime, and the confession will be used in evidence against you. The judge may decide to cut you a break during sentencing, but does not have to, and rarely will. By contrast, criminal plea-bargains were, until recently, illegal under German law.
So Soering, like many Germans caught up in the American justice system, might have simply assumed that he would get automatically get credit from the judge for confessing, because this is what would happen in Germany. But that’s not how it works in the USA.
Whatever his reasons or excuses for confessing, none rules out the most likely explanation, which is that Soering confessed to the crimes because he committed them.
b. Wasn’t the Trial Evidence Weak and Circumstantial?
At trial the prosecutor relied on some evidence which was very convincing, such as Soering’s confessions, and some weaker circumstantial evidence to bolster the confessions. Soering partisans often focus on a bloody sock print which the prosecution argued was consistent with Soering’s foot. They point out that there’s no reliable method to absolutely determine the origin of sock prints. This is a valid critique. But, as every appeals court to look at the case has determined, the sock print wasn’t the conclusive piece of evidence. The trial court rejected the prosecution’s motion to have an expert witness be certified to give an official opinion on whether the sock print was Soering’s. Nevertheless, the prosecution was allowed to argue that it was consistent with Soering’s foot, and with his confessions.
One juror has claimed the sock was important, but American law pays little heed to testimony from jurors about how internal jury deliberations progressed, since deliberations are private, the group dynamics of jury deliberation are complex, and jurors’ recollections after the verdict are often contradictory: For instance, the afterword of Beyond Reason reports:
The jury was not convinced of Jens’s proclaimed innocence, not for an instant. After the trial, the jurors dispersed without commenting to the press, but one whispered to a court official that they had agreed almost immediately that Jens was guilty. Despite that unanimity, it took them almost four hours to decide if the judgment would be for first or second degree murder. Obviously, the obstacle was not a major one.
Despite valiant efforts, nobody has ever convincingly shown that the print could not have been made by Soering, as it certainly was — in one of his confessions, Soering even mentioned that he took off his shoes (g) before re-entering the house to avoid leaving bloody shoe-prints. In any event, the sock print was simply one tile in a mosaic which pointed reliably to Soering’s guilt.
Blood-group evidence — the only kind available in 1990 — is also by its nature vague, and there were no fingerprints from Soering at the crime scene. But this isn’t particularly relevant because Soering, in his confessions, explains in detail all the steps he took to remove evidence from the crime scene, including washing away blood, and throwing away the murder weapon and things he had touched in a trash dumpster “about a mile away” from the crime scene. Although detectives did not recover these items, they found plenty of evidence confirming that the killer had, in fact, cleaned himself and the crime scene. Detectives complained about the meager evidence left behind, and always proceeded from the premise that the perpetrator had taken special care to eliminate clues. As Soering did later when he fled the country after being asked to provide fingerprints and blood samples.
In any event, the circumstantial evidence, while strong, did not have to be enough on its own to convict Soering. It only had to provide adequate corroboration for Soering’s multiple legally-obtained, admissible confessions. Which it more than did.
c. Soering was Small, so How did He Kill Two People?
Soering supporters point to the fact that he’s of medium height and slight build, and wonder how he could have stabbed two adults to death. But the Haysoms were much older than he, also of moderate stature, and had been drinking heavily before Soering’s visit — their blood alcohol content was far above the legal limit. Further, Soering stated that he made a sudden, surprise attack, stabbing Mr. Haysom first. Soering describes this all in minute detail in this confession (pdf) to the German prosecutor, and the others. The victims also fought back and had defensive wounds, so it was hardly as if Soering faced no opposition. One person who is willing to ram a knife into unsuspecting, unprepared people without warning in an enclosed space can injure or kill dozens of people. For instance, eight terrorists using only knives managed to kill 31 people and injure 140 others in a 2014 terrorist attack in China. One 51-year-old man recently managed to kill 2 people and injure 18 on an open street in Japan in under 20 seconds.
d. Don’t Clues Point to Other People Who Killed the Haysoms?
Soering and his supporters have gone back and forth about who, exactly, is supposed to have committed the crimes. At trial, Soering suggested his girlfriend killed her parents, likely with an accomplice. Her fingerprints were found in the house and cigarettes of the brand she smoked found nearby, but this hardly proves anything, since this was her parents’ home which she had repeatedly visited.
In the mid-1990s, Soering’s supporters hit upon an alternate theory: that two drifters named Shiflett and and Albright had killed the Haysoms. The drifters had been convicted of stabbing a fellow homeless man named Millikin near the time and place the Haysoms were killed. But that’s where the suspicion ends. Nobody has ever been able to figure out why these two random drifters would kill the Haysoms for no reason, then leave their house without stealing anything of value. As a Virginia appeals court reasoned:
No evidence was presented that Albright or Shifflett admitted any connection with the Haysom murders, nor was there any evidence that Elizabeth Haysom ever met or had any connection with either of the men. According to the record, the Roanoke police apparently did not make any connection between the Haysom and Millikin murders….
There are no confessions, no matching blood on the knife, no matching fingerprints, no stolen articles, no connection between these two men and Elizabeth Haysom . . . and no logical explanation as to why two drunken robbers and murderers would kill the Haysoms without taking valuables, vehicles and liquor.”
Also, except for the stabbing of the victims, the Millikin and Haysom murders were dissimilar, as the habeas judge stated. The respective murders differed in motivation as well as method. The Haysom killings, committed earlier in time, involved slashing of the victims’ throats with severing of carotid arteries and jugular veins. Millikin’s throat was stabbed, not slashed, and he was sexually disfigured, a circumstance not
present in the Haysom crimes. Albright and Shifflett were motivated by a desire to rob their victims. The Haysom murders were not motivated by robbery; many valuable items in plain view were left intact in the Haysom home.
So much for that theory.
In the documentary about Soering, Soering speculates that Elizabeth perhaps killed her parents with the help of one of her drug dealers. Why, exactly, would a drug dealer help one of his clients to murder two complete strangers for no reason, without even stealing anything from them? And to do this in a state notorious worldwide for its eager pursuit of the death penalty? As Soering Guilty as Charged puts it:
Everyone who has read the earlier posts on this site will already have seen how Soering’s claims about the Haysom murders have evolved over time, changing and mutating to suit the particular version of events he wishes people to believe. First, Elizabeth Haysom murdered her parents alone; then she murdered them with an accomplice; now the claim is that she murdered them with two accomplices. The identities of these shadowy accomplices are never revealed, obviously.
This pretty much sums it up. No reliable evidence has ever emerged of anyone being at the crime scene except Soering and the Haysoms.
e. What about the Mysterious Bloody Car?
Years after the trial, an auto mechanic named Tony Buchanan claimed that a young woman who looked like Haysom, accompanied by a young man, hired him to repair a car whose interior was covered in blood sometime in the summer of 1985 (months after the slayings). This might lend some credence to the Elizabeth-did-it theory. Yet again, the problems with the theory are obvious: Why would Haysom herself keep a car drenched in the murder victims’ blood somewhere (where?) for over 2 months, and only then entrust it to a total stranger?
But even if you were tempted to take this story seriously, a New Yorker profile of the Soering case deep-sixed Buchanan’s credibility:
“Now, first things first,” he said crisply. “Let’s see some identification.” I fished around in pockets and came up with a business card. Buchanan scrutinized it for a long time. Then he reached into the back of his pants and drew a semiautomatic gun.
“You understand,” he said. “This is because I don’t know who you really are.”
Buchanan sat and laid the gun down on the coffee table in front of him. Sometimes, as we spoke, he’d reach forward and touch it, as if about to take it up. “No way—that little S.O.B. with his glasses was not in the shop,” he said, of Soering. The guy with the bloody car had hair that was parted on the side but long in front. “When Soering’s picture come in the paper, he didn’t have no hair over like that,” Buchanan said. Then he leaned toward me with a grin I could not read. “The guy in the shop with her looked like you.”
Buchanan picked up his weapon and, without explanation, left the room. He came back with a binder. Inside were photographs that Soering’s supporters had sent him for identification. Buchanan had cartooned crazy droopy hair on most of them.
f. The DNA Evidence Exonerates Him, Right?
The first thing to understand about the DNA evidence in the Soering case is that when the crime occurred, 1985, reliable DNA testing was not available. Crime-scene evidence was not collected with a view to DNA testing. Many bloodstains at the crime scene apparently contained blood and other DNA (fingerprint oil, skin flakes, other bodily fluids) from multiple donors, which complicates testing enormously. This post in German discusses the evidence in detail.
To sum up: 85% of the samples were contaminated, degraded or otherwise untestable, only a small fraction yielded any meaningful DNA results. No comparison profiles of the victims was available. No DNA from Jens Soering was found in those samples which generated a testable profile. Nor was DNA from any other identified individual found. In an American television broadcast from 2018, an independent expert asked to review the DNA evidence concluded: ‘There’s no indication that Jens Soering was present at the crime scene, but I think we can also say that there’s no affirmative indication of anybody other than the victims being present at the crime scene as well.‘ Soering, it should be remembered, cleaned up the crime scene carefully and disposed of anything he thought he had touched.
In 2016 Betty Layne DesPortes, then President-elect of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said: ‘it appears the “probative” value of the DNA results in this case is limited by a number of open questions. On their face, given the circumstances of collection and storage, it does not appear that they independently support an actual innocence claim.’ Soering’s experts, of course, disagree.
The DNA evidence neither puts Soering at the crime scene nor excludes his presence. Nor does it conclusively prove anyone other the Haysoms and Soering were at the crime scene.
g. What does Elizabeth Haysom say?
She has always said Soering committed the crimes alone, at her behest. In 2016, she said this:
“I am profoundly ashamed of my crime. It’s a horrific crime. I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t like being public entertainment. So I have been (mostly) silent,” she said.
But Haysom said she is frustrated by the efforts of Soering and his supporters over the decades claiming his innocence and muddying the waters.
“I feel like there’s this juggernaut of propaganda … and things are getting further away from the truth,” said Haysom, 52, the same age as her mother when she died.
Haysom said she is loath to continue perpetrating “the whole he-said/she-said thing.” However, she complained, “I feel like he is playing the system. That’s bad for people who really are innocent.”
She said Soering murdered her parents and, despite the 1990 jury verdict convicting him, she feels he has yet to be properly confronted and exposed.
The “new” evidence cannot possibly prove his innocence, she argues. “He was there because he was angry, and because of me,” Haysom said.
h. Was the Judge Biased? Was Soering’s Trial Lawyer Incompetent?
No, or at least not in such a serious way as to call the conviction into question. These issues have been raised in his appeals, considered (g) by appeals courts, and rejected — decades ago. The trial judge knew one of the Haysoms’ relatives, but appeals courts carefully reviewed his performance (which included several rulings unfavorable to the prosecution) and found no reason to doubt his objectivity. Also, of course, judges do not decide guilt in American criminal trial — only the jury decides this question, and they ruled unanimously that Soering was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. One of Soering’s trial lawyers may have had substance-abuse problems and was later disbarred, but Soering had two lawyers. And in any event, their performance was also carefully reviewed and found to satisfy constitutional norms.
Soering’s trial went very poorly for him, but this primarily because of his choices, not any made by his lawyers. Soering confessed to the crime, then he decided to take the witness stand to disavow those confessions and blame Haysom. And he came across at trial supercilious and arrogant, something even his supporters acknowledge. This kind of case — and client — presents a serious challenge to any defense lawyer. As every court to review the case has held, even if the lawyer made mistakes, they didn’t change the outcome of the trial, because the evidence was solidly against Soering.
III. Why Germans Believe Soering is Innocent
So, given that the “new evidence” in the Soering case doesn’t undermine his solid, fair (not perfect, not immaculate) conviction, why are so many Germans convinced it is?
Because the German press is interested in Soering, and almost unanimously on Soering’s side. Many German journalists think they understand the American justice system, and have contempt for it. You can find literally thousands of articles in German arguing that the American criminal justice system is racially biased, fraught with error, grossly unfair, and too punitive. Some of these criticisms are just, others are riddled with errors. (Almost none of these journalists ever skeptically questions the German criminal-justice system.)
German journalists overwhelmingly approach the Soering case from this biased perspective. To take one example, Karin Steinberger, the co-director of the movie Killing for Love. Steinberger has been conversing with Soering by mail since 2006, and has visited him in prison numerous times. She had already written a series of articles (g) for a major German newspaper which more or less explicitly took Soering’s side. In a German-language interview (g) with the weekly Die Zeit, she says of the USA: “There’s a different conception of justice there. They’re all about revenge, not justice.” She claims she approached Soering neutral about his innocence claims, but convinced, based on her own “constitutional understanding”, that 30 years in prison “expiates” any crime. The author of this article, clearly echoing Steinberger’s views, claims the documentary calls into question not just one case, but the “entire American justice system”.
Does this sound like a neutral, unprejudiced journalist simply looking for the facts? Or does it sound like a journalist who already despises and distrusts the American justice system (because of all the negative press she’s already read about it, and because most of her journalist friends think this way) searching for facts and witnesses which confirm her existing prejudices?
Steinberger’s journalism shows the answer. For instance, in a 2016 article (g) for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, she maintained that since Elizabeth Haysom’s parents were murdered on March 30, 1985, Soering, ‘in all those years, has said, sworn, and written one thing again and again: I am innocent.’ As we’ve seen, this is exactly the opposite of the truth. The co-director of Killing for Love, Marcus Vetter, gave an interview (g) here in which he openly states Haysom killed her parents, and — incredibly — never mentions that Soering confessed to the crime repeatedly (except for a vague hint that he ‘took it upon himself’). The directors of the film, like all Soering partisans, simply choose to ignore or downplay the confessions. In German: Es kann nicht sein, was nicht sein darf — it can’t be true because it’s not supposed to be true. They wish away the damning confessions, and want you to do so, too.
The director also says ‘American viewers will see the film differently from Germans. It will be more uncomfortable for them.’ Actually, not really. American journalists have investigated the case themselves, but almost always do what German journalists do not: interview independent experts, explain the entire context of the case, including Soering’s many confessions, and give sources convinced of Soering’s guilt a fair and extensive chance to rebut his arguments.
Aside from the hopelessly one-sided press coverage, another reason Germans think Soering is innocent is likely good old German chauvinism and class solidarity. Educated German urbanites like to think that they are above chauvinism, and constantly denounce it in others. But they also have their biases. Soering was intelligent, educated, the son of a professional civil servant. In other words, Soering’s background shared much in common with the German journalists who cover his case. How could someone so much like them commit such a horrible deed — and then lie about it for decades? It simply can’t be true, can it?
Whatever the reason, German journalists have lined up practically without exception on Soering’s side, and convinced millions of Germans he is innocent, that he received an unfair trial, and that the American justice system is a fraud. They have done a disservice to their readers, and more importantly, to the truth.