As I noted in the last post, Jens Söring is planning a media offensive to clear his name. Which means we’re going to still have to deal with his discredited innocence claims, 30 years after his trial. It’s like Groundhog Day.
But somebody has to do it, and that person is me, since I am still the only German-speaking journalist who has ever publicly expressed serious doubts about Söring’s innocence claims. (That’s about to change, though).
Let’s now turn to the critical logical flaw in Söring’s story. There are lots of problems with his story, but I think this one’s the biggest. This post will get into a little bit of detail about the law, but I will try to keep it comprehensible for laypeople. I should say at the beginning that I am a licensed lawyer, but I no longer actively practice law, and nothing in this post is legal advice. But I do know quite a lot about American criminal law, so you can trust me here.
First we need to discuss a basic criminal-law concept: accessory to a crime. An accessory is someone who aids and abets (in the classic phrase) a criminal in committing a crime. The person who actually commits the crime is called the principal; the person helping is the accessory.
There are two different kinds of accessories: accessories before the fact, and accessories after the fact. Here’s an example:
Case 1: Jack is friends with Jill. One day, Jill comes over to Jack’s house and says: “I found my husband cheating on me with Sandy. He’s over there at her house right now. I am going to go over there and kill them. Can I borrow your gun?” Jack gives Jill his gun, and Jill goes off and shoots her husband and Sandy to death.
Case 2: Jack is friends with Jill. One day, Jill comes over to Jack’s house and says: “I found out my husband was cheating on me with Sandy. I went over to her house while they both were there, and shot them both with this gun.” Jill hands the gun to Jack. “Can you get rid of it for me?” Jack takes the gun and throws it in the river.
Case 1 is a case of accessory before the fact. Jack knew Jill was planning to commit a crime, and he helped her. He didn’t participate in the crime itself, but he helped it happen. Case 2 is a case of accessory after the fact. Jack did not know Jill had committed a crime until she told him. But then he helped her conceal the evidence.
Why is this important? Because there’s an absolutely crucial difference between these two crimes. Accessory before the fact is usually punished much more harshly than accessory after the fact. This makes logical sense: If someone tells you they’re about to commit a crime and asks for your help, you are in a position to stop them. Jack could have saved two lives by denying the gun or blowing the whistle on Jill’s plans. In contrast, accessory after the fact is much less morally grave. In Case #2, Jack can do nothing to prevent the crime, because it’s already happened.
Virginia follows a traditional rule: An accessory before the fact can be punished with exactly the same sentence as the person who committed the crime. The law recognizes no moral distinction between knowingly helping someone commit a crime and actually doing the crime yourself. In Virginia, there is one exception to this rule: If you’re an accessory before the fact to a capital murder (one which can be punishable by death), you can’t be sentenced to death. This is because Virginia law says that only persons who actually participated in the killing can be punished by death. Accessories before the fact to a death-penalty crime can be punished for first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
Accessory after the fact is much, much less severe, even for a death-penalty crime. Accessory after the fact to a death-penalty crime is a class 6 felony: “Every accessory after the fact is guilty of (i) a Class 6 felony in the case of a homicide offense that is punishable by death”. Class 6 felony is the least serious felonies in Virginia, and are punished by one to five years in prison (felony) or up to 12 months in jail and a fine of $2,500 (misdemeanor).
So, to sum up: help someone before they commit a crime, and you get the same punishment they do. Help someone cover it up afterward, and you get a much lighter punishment.
Which now allows us to explore the critical problem with Söring’s alternate history of the night of the crime. According to his 1986 confessions, Söring drove to Loose Chippings and killed the Haysoms while Elizabeth, who knew he was going to confront and possibly kill them, stayed in Washington, D.C. and created an alibi by ordering room service for two, buying pairs of movie tickets, etc. This is also the version of the events Elizabeth testified to. This is also the version of events Elizabeth admitted to under oath at her 1987 trial, and accepted two 45-year prison terms for.
Söring’s testimony at his 1990 trial tells a completely different story. Elizabeth left alone in the afternoon of the murders to pick up a shipment of drugs. She then returned about 2 AM, with bloodstains on her arms, and told Söring she had murdered her own parents. Söring had no idea she was going to do this, and was totally surprised by this confession. But he then helped Elizabeth cover up the crime, and promised to confess to it himself.
So here’s the state of play. If the jury believes Söring’s 1990 trial testimony, Elizabeth should be convicted of capital murder, but Söring can be convicted only of accessory after the fact, a Class 6 Felony which carries a (comparatively) light punishment.
Maybe a chart will clarify the matter:
Söring’s Confession Says
|Crime/sentence Söring||Crime/sentence Haysom|
I killed the Haysoms & Elizabeth knew nothing in advance
2x Murder / 10 years juvenile prison (if tried in Germany)
|Accessory after fact / 1-5 years in prison|
|I killed the Haysoms & Elizabeth knew I was going to do it & helped me||2x murder / 10 years juvenile prison (if tried in Germany)||
Accessory before fact / up to life in prison
Söring claims he confessed to “protect” or “save” Elizabeth, but his confessions implicated her in crimes which could put her in prison for life! This did not escape the attention of the prosecutor at trial. Here’s an excerpt from Söring’s cross-examination (June 18, 1990):
Q: What is your plan of action there, Mr. Soering?
A: Well after some hesitation in the afternoon I decided to make the police believe that I had done this and I did it to the best of my ability in that interview.
A: Because I thought that was the only way to save Elizabeth from the electric chair.
Q: The only way to protect Elizabeth?
A: That’s right.
Q: If you wished to protect Elizabeth you could’ve done it, then, couldn’t you?
A: I did.
Q: All you had to say, Mr. Soering, was I did it, Elizabeth Haysom had no involvement, knew nothing about it. I did it, she didn’t do anything concerning it.
A: (Witness shakes head in the negative).
Q: Couldn’t you?
A: We didn’t think so, no.
Q: And my question is, if you intended to protect Elizabeth, why didn’t you do it?
A: I did do it. That’s what I did, she didn’t go to the electric chair….
Q: At that point [in the June 5, 1986 confession to the London police and Ricky Gardner] you’re talking about Elizabeth staying in Washington and going to cinemas while you drove in the rented car back to Lynchburg.
A: That’s the only story we thought would be believable. We didn’t think it would be believable to say that Elizabeth was completely uninvolved for obvious reasons.
Q: And that’s what I was getting to earlier, that you realized there was no way of providing a statement that you went to Loose Chippings to do the killings and Elizabeth stayed in Washington with no involvement, knowing nothing about it?
Q: Because that would make no sense, right?
A: That’s correct, yes.
Q: But you, Mr. Soering, are now doing the same thing. You are saying that Elizabeth Haysom went to Loose Chippings and that you stayed in Washington and that you know nothing about it and had no involvement, so therefore your explanation makes no sense, correct?
A: That’s not true, no.
Q: It’s the same thing, only reversing roles.
A: But there is a crucial difference. It was completely unbelievable to me at that time, even if it had occurred to me that Elizabeth might drive down to kill her parents, it was completely out of the question as far as I was concerned.
Q: But it’s the same thing reversed, just changing the names. It made no sense in Instance A, but you’re saying it does make sense to these ladies and gentlemen as it applies to you, with you as the alibi?
A: Yes, and I will explain that if you want me to.
But the prosecution had made its point, and moved on to other subjects.
Now, to be fair to Söring, he always carefully says he wanted to save Liz from the electric chair. He’s a clever fellow who had 4 years of legal advice to prepare him for his testimony. His lawyers obviously told him that an accessory before the fact to a death penalty crime cannot be sentenced to death, only the actual killer can. So technically, Söring is right: His confession would save Liz “from the electric chair”, since he would say she didn’t personally kill her parents.
But it would also put her in prison for (up to) life. According to his story, the conversation the two of them must have gone something like this:
Jens: “I’ll take the blame for killing your parents because I love you so much. Besides, I have some form of diplomatic immunity so they’ll have to send me to Germany, and I’ll only spend 5 years in prison.”
Elizabeth: “Thank you, Jens. I’d admit I helped you cover it up. I may get, let’s say, a 2 year sentence and a fine for being an accessory after the fact, but then I’ll return to school, and we’ll meet up in 5-10 years, when you get out of German prison.”
Jens: “Whoa, hold on there just a minute. That’s not going to cut it.”
Elizabeth: “Why not?”
Jens: “Well, people know you hated your parents.”
Jens: “So they’re not going to accept you had no involvement in killing them. You’ll need to confess to helping me as an accessory before the fact. That you knew I was going to kill them.”
Elizabeth: “But the cops aren’t going to have any proof I was an accessory before the fact unless you tell or I tell them. I can just say you did it without telling me beforehand, and you can back me up. They’ll have no way to disprove what you say!”
Jens: “But I am going to tell them you knew about my crime beforehand, darling. I love you, but not so much that I won’t send you to prison for life.”
Elizabeth: “Are you sure I can’t convince you to just send me to prison for 2 years and a fine? After all, it’s completely within your control; if you don’t finger me as an accessory before the fact the cops won’t have anything to go on.”
Jens: “Sorry, my mind’s made up. I will get diplomatic immunity and a German trial as a juvenile and be out in 5 years. But I’m afraid you’ll just have to go to prison for life.”
Elizabeth: “But wait — I thought the entire point of you confessing was so you could be sentenced as a juvenile in Germany, serve 5 years, and then our love affair would resume! How does my getting a life sentence help accomplish that goal?”
Jens: “You ask too many questions.”
Are you beginning to get an idea of why the jury didn’t buy Söring’s story?