Criminal Law, Evidence, Murder, Police and Prosecutors, Soering, True Crime

The Söring Story Switch as it Happened

As I pointed out in a previous post, Jens Söring has changed his story concerning his involvement in the Haysom murders at least four times, depending how you count it. The first story was that Jens Söring was Christopher Platt Noe, and had nothing to do with the Haysom murders. Detective Terry Wright quickly saw through this one, and found out Söring’s true identity. Söring’s second story was that yes, he was Jens Söring, and he killed the Haysoms. Söring stuck with this story for nearly 4 years.

But then, after he arrived in Virginia for trial, he realized those June 1986 confessions would sink him. So he changed his story yet again: Yes, I confessed, but I only did so under duress, so you can’t use the confessions against me. On March 2, 1990, Söring took the witness stand to tell this tale. These hearings weren’t broadcast, but local journalists were there. Here’s the report from the Lynchburg Daily News and Advance from March 3, 1990:

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And here’s coverage from the March 3, 1990 Charlottesville, Virginia Daily Progress:

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As we see, on March 2, 1990, Söring didn’t testify he confessed falsely to protect Elizabeth from the death penalty. He testified that he confessed to protect Elizabeth from being physically injured, right then in June 1986, by Detective Kenneth Beever, or someone working at Beever’s behest.

Nobody bought Söring’s story. Beever denied threatening either Söring or Elizabeth Haysom, and the judge officially ruled Söring was lying about the threat. Considering that Sörings false accusation could have resulted in Beever’s disgrace and even imprisonment, Beever’s denial was remarkably calm. The judge also ruled that Söring’s confessions could come in. These rulings were correct, and were later upheld by multiple appeals courts.

So now Söring had an even bigger problem: The confessions were coming in. He needed a new strategy, and he needed it fast. Interestingly, reporters caught on that something was shifting in the Söring defense camp. On April 1, 1990, the Roanoke Times published an article entitled “Soering May Shift Blame”:

Soering’s attorneys have yet to spell out their strategy. They have, however, hinted at one possible theory they may try to argue: That Elizabeth Haysom – not Soering – killed her parents.

At first look, the theory may seem hard for a jury to swallow.

Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Updike has had five years to build a case against Soering, a former University of Virginia honors student and West German national extradited from Great Britain in January. Updike will have the testimony of Soering’s alleged accomplice in planning the killings, Elizabeth Haysom. The prosecutor also will have as evidence a bloodstained sock print inside the Haysoms’ home that has been linked to Soering. He will have Soering’s own incriminating statements that he was at the murder scene and saw two bodies there when he left.

But the defense would not need to prove that Elizabeth Haysom killed her parents. Soering’s attorneys would need only to make that possibility believable – and plant a “reasonable doubt” about Soering’s guilt in jurors’ minds. The attorneys may try to use some intriguing evidence found at the Haysoms’ cottage-style house to make their theory seem possible.

Before a judge ordered attorneys not to discuss Soering’s case outside the courtroom, his attorneys said he would plead not guilty to the two first-degree murder charges he faces. Since then, Soering’s attorneys have launched a vigorous defense, filing motion after motion – to exclude from the trial the judge, any Bedford County jury, the bloodstained sock print and Soering’s own incriminating statements to police.

Defense attorneys Rick Neaton and William Cleaveland have yet to give Updike evidence they plan to use in the trial, which should include an alibi stating where Soering was the weekend of the killings if he wasn’t at the Haysoms’ house.

Indications that the attorneys will implicate Haysom, however, have come out in court documents and statements made during motion hearings.

The first hint came when Neaton and Cleaveland filed a motion asking Circuit Judge William Sweeney to remove himself from the case, a request Sweeney later denied. In the motion, the attorneys argued that Sweeney had prejudged Soering’s case because the judge had accepted Elizabeth Haysom’s guilty plea in 1987.

Haysom pleaded guilty to being an accessory before the fact in her parents’ slashing deaths and was sentenced to 90 years in prison. Because she was already tried under the murder statute, Haysom cannot face any further murder charges in the case, regardless of any new evidence that might be revealed in Soering’s trial.

In the motion hearing, the prosecution contended that Haysom and Soering planned the murders during their freshman year at UVA and set up an alibi with the weekend trip to Washington. Saturday evening, March 30, Soering drove alone to Boonsboro to carry out the murders and Haysom waited for him to drive back to their Washington hotel room that night, the prosecution argued.

In their motion, Soering’s attorneys contended that Sweeney had endorsed the prosecution’s theory that “Elizabeth Haysom was not present in her parents’ home at the time of the murders.” The attorneys went on to argue that Sweeney had endorsed Elizabeth Haysom’s credibility on the issue of whether she was merely an accessory before the fact or “a participant in some other degree.”

By singling out that detail – Elizabeth Haysom’s role in the killings – Neaton and Cleaveland seem poised to dispute it.

To develop an argument that Elizabeth Haysom could have killed her parents, the defense attorneys would need to counteract Soering’s 1986 statements to police in which he said emphatically that Haysom did not go with him to her parents’ house.
It is not clear whether Soering will testify at his trial, but in another pretrial hearing Soering said he had told the police “lies” about Haysom’s role during those 1986 statements.

“I started then telling lies about Elizabeth’s involvement to clear her name and keep her out of it as much as I could,” Soering told Updike in the hearing last month. In his closing argument at that hearing, Neaton said Soering had a reason to lie about Elizabeth Haysom’s role.

In taped interviews with London police in 1986, Soering indicated that he believed that he, as a West German national, might not be tried in the United States, where he could face capital murder charges. But Soering believed that his girlfriend could indeed be tried here, Neaton said.

“If he [Soering] knows that Elizabeth Haysom committed the murder, she would face the electric chair,” Neaton said. “And that would give him reason to make her an accessory after the fact” rather than see her face such dire consequences. If the defense attorneys do argue that Haysom was at her parents’ Boonsboro house that weekend in 1985, they also are likely to argue that Soering was not there. It would not appear to help their case to contend that both Haysom and Soering were at the house during the stabbings.

If Soering did not carry out the killings but was in the house, he could still be convicted of being an accessory before the fact, which carries the same sentence as the charges he now faces. Charges of first-degree murder and accessory before the fact each carry a maximum life sentence.

The reporter, Monica Davey, did a good job of reading the tea leaves. The blame-shift took place exactly as she had predicted. She also noticed the key strategic issue: Söring could gain nothing by simply arguing Elizabeth was there. He must convince the jury that he wasn’t there. If the jury concludes he was there, he could face a potential life sentence, which leaves him no better off. His only chance of escaping a long prison term was to convince the jury he was only an accessory after the fact (as I explained in English here and in German here). To achieve this, he had to establish not only that he didn’t kill the Haysoms, but also that (1) he didn’t participate in the killing, and (2) he didn’t know about the killings in advance.

But if we know anything about Jens Söring, we know that, given time, he can and will invent a story to explain anything, and that’s just what he did. Unfortunately for him, another prediction in the Davey article also came true: “[T]he theory may seem hard for a jury to swallow.” Indeed.

10 thoughts on “The Söring Story Switch as it Happened”

  1. Neaton said: “And that would give him reason to make her an accessory AFTER the fact”

    Genau das leistet seine “Story” aber nicht: wenn ich die Verhörprotokolle aus 1986 richtig verstehe, dann hat er sie damit zur Mittäterin/Mitwisserin VOR der Tat erklärt.

    Und damit ist doch die ganze Erklärung, er habe Elizabeth schützen wollen, hinfällig.

    Ich frage mich im übrigen: wer hat sich dieses Story-switching eigentlich ausgedacht: Herr Söring selbst oder seine Anwälte ?
    Wenn er sich das selbst ausgedacht hat, dann ist die Frage, ob sich Anwälte in den USA solche total erfundenen Geschichten vor Gericht überhaupt zu eigen machen dürfen ??? (den Anwälten muß klar gewesen sein, daß diese Story erfunden war)

    1. Hi FS, — let me reply in English for convenience’s sake.

      His 1986 confessions most definitely made her an accessory before the fact. This is why Söring carefully claims, now, that he only wanted to protect her *from the electric chair*. That is true — his confession, if people had believed it, would have kept her from the chair. But it also put her in prison for up to life. You can judge for yourself what kind of “protection” that is.

      I’m sure JS came up with the story himself, lawyers don’t invent new stories for their clients to tell, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible the lawyer gave him advice and “nudges” concerning how to develop his story. Something like: “Jens, the confessions are probably coming in. So now we’d like you to shift focus and try to remember if there are any details which could put those confessions in a different light. Perhaps there are facts you didn’t consider relevant up to this point. Or perhaps there are things which are embarrassing for you to admit, so you kept them secret. But now you realize you need to admit them. Think about that carefully, and we’ll talk next week.”

      This is the advantage of having a smart client like JS. All you need to do is give him the hints, and he’ll take it from there. The fact that the lawyer has doubts about the client’s new story is irrelevant — the lawyer wasn’t there in March 1985, he doesn’t know for sure what happened. And it’s OK under American ethics laws for lawyers to do this in a criminal defense case. When the client faces up to life in prison, the defense lawyer must do everything in his or her power to challenge the state’s case. If the client’s story has problems, it’s up to the state to point them out, not the defense.

      1. ok, “lawyer wasn’t there in March 1985”, but i can’t imagine that Mr. Neaton and his collegue didn’t recognize this new story as a fairy-tail. Probably not a nice job for an attorney to go in front of a jury with a fairy-tail to present …

        and yes, the story would have kept her from the electric chair, ….., but put her in jail for lifetime. What a nice lover Jens was ….

        Can’t believe, that still some guys exspecially here in Germany believe this fairy-tail. But you may have noticed, that even the “Bild-Zeitung” called him a “Doppelmörder”.

      2. Mich würde mal interessieren, ob JS gegenüber seinen Verteidigern Neaton und Cleaveland sofort bei der ersten Kontaktaufnahme mit seiner Geschichte ‘ich tat es, um Elizabeth zu retten’ rüberkam oder ob er anfangs noch an seinen Aussagen, die er in London gemacht hatte, festhielt.

    2. Man kann davon ausgehen, dass Söring bei den Verhören 1986 noch näher an der Wahrheit dran war. 1990 hatte sich die Situation für ihn geändert, es ging ihm vornehmlich darum, seine Haut zu retten. Zumal EH bereits seit 1987 verurteilt war. Seine konstruierte Geschichte überzeugte aber nicht. Die Lücken in der Glaubwürdigkeit zeigten sich immer wieder.

      1. Mit der “Elizabeth retten” Story kam er erst, nachdem sein Antrag, die Geständnisse aus der Zeit in London nicht zuzulassen, abgelehnt wurde. Diesen Antrag begründet er damit, ihm sei anwaltlicher Beistand verwehrt worden und die Polizeibeamten dort hätten Elizabeth physisch bedroht (alles Unsinn).

        Die Frage ist, warum er überhaupt in London gestanden hat ? Klar, er ging davon aus, daß Ermittler in Virginia Beweise gegen ihn in der Hand hatten. Aber dennoch: Ein Geständnis verbessert die eigene Lage doch nie !

  2. At his murder trial, where he averred he confessed in a heroic effort to take the heat off of Elizabeth so that she would only be sent to prison for a mere 90 years, was the jury also told he had previously made a radically different claim in order to try and explain away his confessions (the cock and bull story about the police threatening to physically harm Elizabeth Haysom if he didn’t immediately confess)?

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