Elizabeth Haysom testified against Jens Söring on June 13th and June 14th, 1990. Her testimony started out with a direct examination from Jim Updike, the District Attorney. Haysom tells the jury a little about her background, about her mixed feelings concerning her parents, meeting Jens Söring, about trying to manipulate him into leaving college, and about his and her growing resentment towards her parents. Familiar ground.
Then we come to the murder weekend. Haysom testifies that the weekend trip was not originally meant to provide an alibi. However, on Saturday, things got more concrete:
A Well we got up to Washington, checked into the hotel, I think we went to a movie that evening, went out to eat or something. The following day, the Saturday, we — I’m not sure exactly how it came about, but it suddenly became real, we were going to conspire and commit murder. Jens and I, we drove around Washington, and we argued as we drove, and we talked, and we decided on the alibi. The alibi was — I was the alibi in Washington, and that I would go to movies, and keep the receipts, tickets, the stubs; that I would go to the hotel, order room service, we had this whole little skit planned out of how I was to behave with the room service. We decided that I would phone somebody and make it sound like Jens was with me. He gave me his Visa card — actually, I believe it’s his father’s Visa card to forge a signature, I practiced forging his signature. We — I think I even took my Most machine card to take money out so that it would have a time slot. I think he had his, too. And I was supposed to use his to show that he had been there, because he would have a receipt for his card was used and it would have a time, things like that. So we discussed all of these things, and we decided on it. We were in the car in Washington, and we were arguing backward and forwards, and he said — at this point we were sort of arguing, well I don’t believe your parents are as bad as you make out and you’re making a much bigger deal of this and that, and that, and it was all very tentative, and not at all concrete.
And we were sitting in the car, we had stopped, and he said, well I’ll go down there and I’ll pretend that I am Just dropping in, going to see a friend in North Carolina or something, and see what they have to say, and if I don’t like what they have to say, then I’ll kill them. And I said fine. And I got out of the car to go to the first — he dropped me off around the corner from the first movie theater that I was supposed to attend to start setting up the alibi for him. He left, and I went — there was a bar just behind the theater, and I went into the bar and I got a drink, and scored some dope, and so that when I came out of the bar I went and picked up the tickets, two tickets.
Q To the movie?
A To the movie. I was also supposed to take notes of the movie, what the place looked like inside, the upholstery, everything, notes on the movie.
A So that when Jens came back he could read these things, and when the police questioned him or whatever he could say it was this sort of movie, this is what happened or whatever, he was supposed to be able to describe the place that he was at….
Q You say that you bought those two tickets, did you see the movie?
A No, I did not.
Q You did not. What did you do?
A Well, I was a heroin addict, and I had money on me, and I was alone, and I went to —
Q Where did you get the money?
A That morning, Saturday morning I spent a couple of hours, Jens was still at the hotel — actually, he drove me and dropped me off to some different jewelry stores, and I sold some jewelry….
Q Did you want him to kill your parents?
A Yes, I did. I think it would be I think it would be true to say that when Jens left me on Saturday afternoon to go down to see my parents that I was much more concerned that he would not kill them than that he would, because –
A Well it was the whole idea of Jens killing anybody was so utterly fantastic. The whole thing was like a dream, it was bizarre. And I was more worried about the repercussions or my parents knowing that I was in Washington with Jens, that I was spending this money that I could not afford, that was selling jewelry, that I was unchaperoned, and they would not approve of it and already be upset. And the rather peculiar frame of mind that I was in at the time, it seemed a lot neater them being dead than alive and having to deal with that kind of a scene.
Q And you did want him to kill them?
A Yes, I did.
She describes what happened after Söring returned from Loose Chippings, clothed mainly in a bloody bedsheet or bedspread:
A We drove into the underground parking and parked somewhere quite close to the elevators. Because of the state that Jens was in, I had a very large overcoat, and I gave him the overcoat, he put it on, draped it around himself, and we went to the elevators from the parking lot into the main hotel. There were cameras there, and at the time we believed that they were taped, security taped, so we did this little scene of him being drunk, and I was helping him, and we were young lovers and the rest of it, And we got in the elevator, and we went up to the room, and Jens took a shower. And he told me to go downstairs — go down to the parking, to the car and take a bottle of Coca-Cola with me, and to clean the blood in the car.
Q Bottle of Coca-cola?
A With Coca-cola, because apparently Coca-cola eats anything.
Q And when he told you to do that, did you do it?
A Yes, I did. I went down to the car, I cleaned parts of the car, he made particular reference to the fender where he had hit the dog, and I may have brought the bed spread or whatever up with me, I’m not sure, I remember cleaning the car, though. I came back up to the room, he had finished taking his shower, and he said did you remember to do the mirrors, and this and this, and I said no, so I went back down again and cleaned some more, And then I returned back to the room and Jens had gone to bed.
Why Coca-Cola? Because, as the Wright report points out, it’s long been known that Coca-Cola is especially effective at cleaning bloodstains. This is in fact true: Mythbusters tested it and found Coke to be effective for cleaning bloodstains.
The examination then turns to the time after the murders. As a family member of the deceased, Haysom was under immediate scrutiny by the police, and gave investigators an interview on April 16, 1985:
Q Did you say anything to the police officers about what you have just told the jury?
A No, I did not. I lied about you know, what happened. I denied it, I had nothing to do with it…
Q After doing that, after the first interview in Boonsboro, did the defendant Jens Soering show any interest in what you had said to the police, or talk to you about what you had said to the police?
A Oh, yes. One of the mistakes that I made was in terms of this plan I guess, was that I was not supposed to mention Jens to the police, because as far as we knew, nobody knew of him, certainly not who he was, and I told the police that he had been to the house with me on a previous occasion.
Q On a previous occasion?
A And they had mentioned that they needed the fingerprints and forensic samples and things from everybody who had been in the house in the last six months. And I told them [on April 16] that Jens had been there with me on a previous occasion. I told them all sorts of other things, too, most of which were nonsense, but after that interview after the 16th, the one on the 16th, I was debriefed with Jens as to what I said, what was asked, what did the police know, and right up until a few weeks ago, I actually thought that the police had not and they did, and that was unfortunate in a way, because I misled Jens as to what they had….
A After some more of these — some discussions about what was going on, I had been trying to inform Jens of what exactly was going on with the investigation so that he would have some idea, and at that time we believed that the police had fingerprints of his.
Q Why did you believe that? Was there any specific reason?
A Apparently it was paranoia, but he had fingerprints and he wanted to match them. And we were absolutely sure that they must be a set of his. For some reason, I misunderstood somewhere along the line, and I thought you had a partial print actually in blood, and we were very concerned about that….
Updike asks her about the joint travel diary entry:
Q Then in single quotes, the case is about to be solved. In brackets, perhaps fingerprints on coffee mug used by Jens in Bedford interview gave him away, What
is that statement all about?
A Well as I stated earlier, the — it was our belief that the police had fingerprints, a partial fingerprint in blood, and we thought that it was Jens’s, and we thought that — when he had gone to Bedford and had his interview with Ricky Gardner, that the coffee cup that he had used, they had lifted the fingerprints off of the coffee cup and matched it to this fingerprint.
At this point, Updike has Haysom read from some of the incriminating letters she and Söring exchanged after the murders. He then comes to June 8th, 1986, when Elizabeth Haysom is informed by detectives that Jens has already implicated her in providing an alibi for him. Under Updike’s questioning, Haysom admits she changed her story:
Q And I’m not going to ask you about specifics of it, because it would require that I at this point give it to you and ask that you read the whole thing. I would like to ask after that interview, were you interviewed again that night?
A Yes, after I made the statement I went back to my cell, and I rang for the desk sergeant and asked to speak with somebody, he said that everybody was leaving or in bed, it was very late, it was very early Monday morning, and I said I didn’t care who I spoke to, I had to speak to somebody. And I was shown up to the interview room and I believe that Mr. Gardner, and Beever and Wright were present, and I made another statement.
Q You asked to do that?
A Yes, I did.
Q Was that a brief statement, and if I can show you a transcript of a statement that is really about a page and a half long after you take the Miranda advisement out of it.
A Yes, this is the statement.
Q My question would be at this point, why did you make that statement at that time?
A Because I felt absolutely miserable about the — some of the things that I had said in the earlier statement.
Q Earlier that night?
A Yes. That statement that I had made. I felt that I had given the impression that — well I had tried to give the impression to begin with that I was not involved in any way, Jens was solely responsible, and afterwards I felt that I had placed insufficient responsibility on myself for what taken place, and that I was in effect blaming him, and I wanted to clear that up, and that’s what this statement is about. And in that statement do you admit your responsibility, your involvement in this matter?…
A Yes, I do.
Q Miss Haysom, after those statements, the last being the morning of Monday June 9th, 1986, at that time you remained incarcerated in England for a period of time until you were extradited to this country, is that correct?
A That’s correct.
Haysom then describes her time in prison in England in 1986. At first she had decided to fight extradition like Söring, but after seeing some of the crime-scene photos as part of the extradition hearing, she decided to agree to extradition and plead guilty. Söring was enraged by this decision:
Q He writes that. On the top of the next page, and the bottom of that page, does he write, so why for God sake, sacrifice your future by refusing to oppose extradition and pleading guilty to charges which are far too high. Does he write that at that time?
A Yes, he does.
Q So there had been discussions between the two of you as of the time that this letter was written December 18, 1986 as to you pleading guilty?
Q Upon your return — well it would have been in May —
A May the 8th, 1987,
Q May the 8th, 1987. Well before we get to that, I wanted to ask you, was there any reaction from the defendant to your decision of pleading guilty, and I’m talking about reaction in person between the two of you.
A Yes. The second to last time that Jens and I went up for extradition together, we saw each other in the courtroom we were sitting in the dock together, there was debate going on in the courtroom about my barrister had asked for the cases to be separated so that I could be extradited, and his barrister was saying that for various reasons that they could not be separated, and I was asked — the Judge asked me how I felt, and I said that I wanted to waive my extradition. And Jens grabbed me by the throat in the courtroom, and he had to be removed. And the final time that we appeared together, he had to be handcuffed and escorted in the courtroom, and at that time the cases were separated, and I appeared my final time on April 15th.
Haysom’s direct examination stops shortly after this exchange. Updike’s strategy here is obvious. If you, as a lawyer, need to present the testimony of a witness with credibility problems, you have a choice of strategies. First, you can simply let the witness tell their story, and then wait for the opposing side attack their credibility on cross-examination. The second strategy is to preemptively raise these issues during your direct examination. That is, when you are subjecting the witness to friendly questioning which helps your side of the case, you bring up their credibility problems (prior convictions, prior inconsistent stories), so that the jury first learns of the witnesses’ problems during a sympathetic interview. This strategy is known to lawyers as “drawing the sting“. It shows the jury that neither you as nor the witness are trying to hide the bad stuff. When the opposing side cross-examines the witness, all the bad stuff won’t be new to jury. They will already have heard about it in a somewhat more forgiving context.
Updike had little choice but to “draw the sting”, since he knew the defense had dozens of valid points to attack Haysom with. Thus, Updike encourages Haysom to admit that (1) she lied to dozens of people, including police officers, (2) she wanted her parents dead and hoped Söring had killed them; (3) she committed innumerable crimes of dishonesty (or “moral turpitude”, in the legal phrase) which undermine her credibility, including theft and fraud; (4) she was a drug addict; and (5) her story had inconsistencies, and she had changed it several times in the past. Even after this friendly examination, therefore, the jury was aware that Haysom had done terrible things, lied about them, and generally was a dishonest person of low moral character. The defense cross-examination by Richard Neaton was effective, but it didn’t raise very many new issues. The jury already knew Haysom was a deeply compromised witness.
This is why Team Söring’s focus on Elizabeth as the femme fatale/”star witness” for the prosecution is beside the point. Even the prosecution never presented Elizabeth as a credible or sympathetic witness. Haysom herself admitted lying several times during friendly direct examination, and admitted lying many more times during hostile cross-examination. Haysom described herself as a dishonest, morally corrupt individual who had committed terrible crimes. The jury heard all of these damaging admissions.
During Jim Updike’s closing argument, this was the only sustained comment he made about Elizabeth Haysom, her character, and her testimony:
And Elizabeth Haysom, regardless of what you want to say about her, or think about her, because she’s a murderer, she has been convicted of first degree murder by her pleas as an accessory before the fact; whatever you want to talk about, it carries the same penalty of 20 years to life, it’s murder under Virginia law.
She walked into this courtroom, and she accepted responsibility for what she did, and that was she manipulated this man, she wanted him to kill her parents, he did do that, and afterwards, as much as she hated her parents, it was still her parents, she said well, once she saw all those pictures from the extradition, the pictures that you all have, once she saw what had happened, then in December, December 14th, remember that letter, even Jens Soering is writing to her about saying that you’re going to plead guilty no need to protect Elizabeth anymore. Elizabeth Haysom, if there’s anything that you can say about her, she makes up her mind, she’s made up her mind, she said she was going to plead guilty, she was guilty and she did plead guilty. No need to protect Elizabeth anymore, if there had been, why would she plead guilty, let this man take the fall for it. She wasn’t going to do that, that’s not how it was, she didn’t.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The defense, for its part, provided the jury with a detailed list of Haysom’s character faults and inconsistent stories. It hammered on these points over and over, for page after page of its closing argument. Nobody on the jury had any illusions about Haysom’s character or credibility.
You might wonder why the prosecution offered her testimony in the first place, given its weaknesses. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, in any American criminal trial, the prosecution must convince all 12 jurors of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a high standard, both from a legal and practical standpoint. From a practical standpoint, the requirement that juries vote unanimously means the prosecutor has to convince the most skeptical juror out of all 12. Conversely, the defense targets exactly that same juror, since convincing even one juror that the evidence is insufficient will lead to a mistrial. Prosecutors therefore have an incentive to go overboard, and introduce all of the evidence they have, from the strongest to the weakest. You never know exactly which piece of evidence will resonate with that one most skeptical juror. A lawyer should never substitute his judgment about what’s relevant for the jury’s judgment. It’s the jury’s decision to make, give them all the help you can.
And Haysom’s testimony was helpful — it helped corroborate Söring’s confessions. Although Haysom changed her story repeatedly on the point of whether she knew in advance Söring would kill her parents, she never changed her story that Söring in fact did kill her parents. This bolstered Söring’s confessions.
Second, the relationship element makes the case more exciting. Jurors are ordinary human beings. When you force people to sit for hours in a courtroom, the least you can do is make the presentation of evidence as entertaining as possible, to keep the jury’s attention. Haysom’s portrayal of alienation and betrayal was nothing if not interesting. It also helped flesh out the psychological dynamics behind a very strange crime.
Third, if Haysom hadn’t testified, the jury would have questioned why they weren’t hearing from someone who had such an intimate role in the crime.
For all these reasons and probably a few more, Updike decided that the advantages of presenting Haysom’s testimony outweighed the very real disadvantages.
Nevertheless, Updike could probably have won the case without Haysom’s testimony, if he had wanted to risk it. What convicted Söring were his confessions. The jury heard almost a week of detailed testimony about them. Once the defendant confesses, the prosecution’s job is largely over. The prosecution no longer needs to build a case from scratch, it only needs to corroborate the confession: to provide some evidence that it was, indeed, truthful. The corroborating evidence doesn’t need to prove the defendant’s guilt on its own, since the confession bears most of the weight. The corroborating evidence only needs to suggest the confession is true. In this case, there was plenty of corroborating evidence: the Type O blood at the crime scene, the bloody sock-print consistent with Söring’s foot, Söring’s suspicious behavior (wiping fingerprints, throwing away a free college education), the innumerable incriminating statements in the letters and diaries, and Elizabeth’s testimony. Söring’s own trial testimony, ironically, provided additional corroboration, since his new story of why he confessed was so illogical.
All of these things, taken together, show that Söring’s confessions were accurate. The jury made the right decision to believe them, and every judge who has ever reviewed the case has agreed.