ZDFInfo, the German public broadcasting channel specializing in documentaries, has finally officially announced the new 4-part documentary on Jens Söring which will be broadcast on August 4 and August 10, 2020. All four parts are now available for press screenings, and I have them all.
I’ve translated the press release, available here in German, into English:
For more than 33 years the German Jens Söring was imprisoned in the USA – convicted of the murder of the parents of his lover, Elizabeth Haysom. In December 2019, he was paroled and extradited to Germany under the condition that he would never return to the USA. On Tuesday, August 4, 2020, starting at 8:15 pm, the four-part ZDFinfo series “Killing For Love – The Case of Jens Söring” will describe, how this sensational case went from murder to conviction and beyond. All four episodes can be viewed in the ZDFmediathek starting on Tuesday, 4 August 2020, 10.00 a.m.
In “Killing For Love – Der Fall Jens Söring”, filmmakers Karin Steinberger and Marcus Vetter show never-before-seen video material of the Haysom trials. They talk to former investigators, the judge and accompany a private detective who, after more than two decades, is searching for new evidence to reopen the case.
The prelude begins at 8:15 pm with the episode “The Murder”. It reconstructs the night of March 30, 1985, when Derek and Nancy Haysom were murdered in their home in Lynchburg, Virginia. When the police investigation focused on Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Söring in the fall of 1985, the couple fled the country. They were arrested in London in 1986. The episode “The Betrayal” (9 p.m.) describes how Söring confessed to the murder while in custody, to save his girlfriend from the electric chair. Haysom claimed to have been merely an “accomplice” and depicted Söring as a “German bastard”. At this point, Söring himself faced the death penalty. In court, he fought for his life. “The Alibis” (21.45 hrs) focuses on the trial, which was one of the first to be broadcast live on US television. During the trial, Söring claims to have provided an alibi at Haysom’s request while she was killing her parents. The conclusion comes 10:30 pm with the episode “The Verdict”. It reviews how Söring has fared since he was sentenced to two life sentences for two murders in 1990.
On Monday, 10 August 2020, starting at 7.45 a.m., ZDFinfo will show all four episodes of “Killing For Love – The Case of Jens Söring” again.
There are two misleading claims in this summary. First: “The episode “The Betrayal” (9 p.m.) describes how Söring confessed to the murder while in custody, to save his girlfriend from the electric chair.” The press summary treats it as an established fact that Söring confessed for this reason. Not only is it not an established fact, the jury explicitly found Söring to be lying about this. There is no proof Söring confessed for this reason except in the words of Jens Söring, who is a pathological liar when it comes to his case. Second, I’m unaware of Elizabeth Haysom ever referring to Söring as the “German Bastard” or the “German Monster”, which were UK tabloid-headline inventions.
Overall, though, the tone of the press release is somewhat muted. It doesn’t claim explicitly that Söring is innocent, or even that he was unjustly convicted.
The same can be said for this interview with Markus Vetter, which can be found in the ZDF press pack for the new series. Here’s my English translation:
You were in prison in the USA and conducted an extensive interview with Jens Söring. What was your impression at the time and how did you experience Jens Söring on his arrival in Germany?
We were in prison with Jens Söring in November 2013 – my co-director Karin Steinberger, a small camera team and me. It was the only interview we got to do. After that it was generally forbidden to shoot in “Level 3” prisons. And Jens Söring was in a so-called “Level 3” prison.
He had said right at the beginning: “Shoot as much as you can, you never know when it’ll be possible again.” He had been talking about his life for four hours. He wanted to convince us to take a closer look at his case so that we would at least consider the possibility of his innocence. When we drove back to New York, everyone was silent in the car. None of us found words for what we just experienced. He had already been in prison for 24 years at that time. Nobody knew whether he would ever be able to leave prison alive.
We decided to make the film after that interview. It would deal with topics such as reconciliation, revenge and “first love”. Exactly six years later, in November 2019, Jens Söring was released on probation. Just before Christmas he landed in Frankfurt. He has spent more than the first half of his life behind bars.
In the documentary, you show video material of the Haysom processes that have not been seen before. How did it happen?
We researched at WSET, the Virginia TV station that shot the trial at the time, and found and licensed the material. It was incredibly labor-intensive to sift through and evaluate all the material. There were two trials: Elizabeth Haysom’s trial in 1987 and Jens Söring’s trial in 1990. Viewers experience two completely different versions of the day on which the murder took place: In one, Söring goes to the cinema to buy two cinema tickets (intended as an alibi) while she commits the murder of her parents. In the other, she buys the two movie tickets and he murders her parents. It’s an incredibly exciting moment.
What did the former investigators, the judge and the private detective who wants to reopen the case tell you about Jens Söring — more clashing stories, or new findings with regard to the debate: “Double murderer or victim of a miscarriage of justice”?
The movie’s doesn’t judge this question. It shows that there are legitimate doubts. Apart from Jens Söring, only Americans are interviewed in the film. There’s Ricky Gardner, one of the sheriffs at the time, who is 100 percent convinced of Jens’ guilt. Then there is his colleague Chuck Reed [sic], who says that the case was not resolved beyond all doubt, and that this fact should have been taken into account in Söring’s sentence. Gail Marshall, the former Attorney General of Virginia, is convinced of his innocence and has been fighting for years for Söring’s transfer to Germany. The film lets the viewer decide for him- or herself.
While working on the documentary, were you also able to find out what Jens Söring thinks is particularly important for his new life in Germany?
I think Jens Söring wants to give the second half of his life a meaning, so that not everything was in vain. He told me once that it was important to him to repeatedly point out the flaws in the American justice system and its prisons in the coming years, and to help initiate a social discourse on topics such as the “presumption of innocence”, “in doubt for the accused” and the maximum length of prison sentences.
First, the necessary corrections. Gail Starling Marshall, Söring’s former attorney, wasn’t the Attorney General of Virginia. That is a prominent elected position comparable to being the Justice Minister of a German state. Marshall was a Deputy Attorney General of Virginia, of which there are currently five. This is still a respectable position, but it’s not the boss. Here’s a brief summary of Marshall’s career, from the University of Virginia website:
Gail Starling Marshall ’68, a former UVA Law professor, served as a Virginia deputy attorney general during the latter part of the 1980s under Attorney General Mary Sue Terry ’73, the first woman elected to statewide office in the state. Marshall’s review of death penalty cases led her to question the guilt of Earl Washington Jr. Her flagging of the case for further investigation famously led to commutation nine days before his scheduled execution, and eventually led to his being pardoned. Marshall is well known for her body of work on behalf of the indigent, including through the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, which she helped found.
This is an impressive resume, and what I’ve seen of Marshall’s work is very good. She knows her stuff, and Söring is very lucky to have such an advocate. But Marshall wasn’t the Attorney General of Virginia.
Aside from this one error, the interview with Vetter is curiously muted. Vetter backs away from claiming Söring’s innocence, and even refrains from pointed critiques of the US justice system. If you’ve been following Markus Vetter’s and especially Karin Steinberger’s comments in the German press over the past decade or so, this new interview will come as a bit of a shock. Team Söring has dialed down the rhetoric.
Previously, Steinberger and Vetter confidently proclaimed Söring had had a grossly unfair trial, and both of them came just shy of proclaiming him innocent. Steinberger is the prime offender here. For instance, in a 2016 interview (g) with the German weekly Die Zeit, she said: “Söring made himself guilty, but not as described in the indictment.” Here, she’s parroting Söring’s own explanation: He was “guilty” of loving too much, “guilty” of lying about his involvement in the crime, and “guilty” of not somehow stopping Elizabeth, etc. In a 2016 interview (g) for the taz newspaper, Steinberger said: “I don’t know what happened that night, although I have been researching the case for 10 years. To us, the question is: Are there doubts about Jens Söring’s guilt? And here one must say, at this point: extremely serious ones, and they are only getting more serious.”
Here’s an example from Vetter, from an interview (g) conducted shortly after Söring’s release in November 2019: “After researching hundreds of hours of material relating to the trial, I got the impression that I could never say with certainty that he was guilty. In fact, I tended toward the opposite impression, that he was not.” Interestingly, the interviewer actually confronts Vetter with the conclusions of my first article (g) on the Söring case, in which I pointed out how biased “Killing for Love” was. He replies with anodyne hand-waving about how the filmmakers talked to lots of different people, including people who believed Söring guilty.
Now Vetter strikes a much more restrained tone. Much has happened since November of 2019. First, the Wright report, then my 23,000-word summary (g) of the Wright report for the FAZ. Judging from my social-media accounts and email inbox, both of these analyses are still changing minds on a daily basis. Further, Söring changed his story after release. After 30 years in which he said Elizabeth Haysom personally killed her own parents, he now claims he “doesn’t know” who did it. Söring, and his supporters, now know there are lots of claims they can’t make anymore, because there’s now proof, in both English and German, that those claims are false. And Söring’s supporters are also wary, since they now know that Söring has lied about innumerable aspects of his case, both to them and to the public at large. They now know that nothing he says about his case can be believed without first checking it. And they know that if they don’t check it, we — the Söring Truth Squad — certainly will.
So Söring supporters are now trapped between their personal sympathy for Söring — based on their long friendship with him (Vetter in 2016: “Jens has been part of Karin’s life for a long time, and he has now become part of mine.”) — and their uneasy doubts about his credibility. I have a certain amount of sympathy for their position, but…not all that much. They should have been more skeptical of the stories a convicted con man and double-murderer spins — even if he is an educated, articulate, mild-mannered child of the German bourgeoisie.