Criminal Law, Murder, Police and Prosecutors, Right of Personality, Soering, True Crime

How Did Jens Soering’s Arguments Spread? Groupthink & Reputational Cascades

I will be back soon with a post about double jeopardy/ne bis in idem, but I thought it was time to go back to Jens Soering for a bit.

We’ll begin with an update on the state of play:

I. Soering: The State of Play Right Now

First, Soering is still absent from social media.

Second, his newest book (g) will be published on September 20, 2021:

Rückkehr ins Leben
Cover of Jens Soering’s new book “Rückkehr ins Leben/Return to Life”

The title is “Return to Life: My First Year in Freedom after 33 Years of Prison”. The jacket blurb mentions nothing about his case except that Soering has a “past” to recover from. The author description says: “Er selbst beteuert bis zum heutigen Tag seine Unschuld.”: “He himself stresses his innocence to the present day.” This is a remarkably distanced and accurate way to describe things. Bertelsmann is more responsible than the publishers of Soering’s last book, who put a sticker on the cover calling him “Victim of American Justice(!)”. Of course, I’ve requested a review copy and will be scanning each page for things of interest.

Third, Team Soering’s arguments have been critically damaged by recent revelations, principally from the Virginia-based podcast Small Town Big Crime. Not only did the reporters manage to clear the two drifters and Jim Farmer by DNA, the expert who cleared them was none other than J. Thomas McClintock, one of Soering’s former paid experts. They even got McClintock to admit that all of the male DNA at the Soering crime scene could have come from Derek Haysom — or in McClintock’s more careful wording, that Haysom “could not be excluded” as the donor. Every independent expert has said either that Derek Haysom can’t be ruled out, or that the DNA is all Derek Haysom’s. And now Soering’s own expert agrees Haysom can’t be ruled out. Moses Schanfield is the only expert left willing to publicly defend Soering’s DNA theories. Actually, I should say he is not willing to defend them, since when he was contacted by the reporters of Small Town, Big Crime, he claimed he had no time to do so.

The “exculpatory” DNA evidence was, all along, nothing more than speculation built on a tendentious re-interpretation of existing data. It never “excluded” Soering from the crime scene or placed him there. Now that the DNA argument has been scrutinized, it’s been refuted.

But perhaps the greatest damage to Soering’s theories came, as usual, from Soeing himself. He has been told by his lawyers to stop accusing Elizabeth of personally killing her parents, because there’s zero evidence this happened and she has warned him of legal consequences. Yet this was his story from June 1990 to February 2020! People new to the case notice this and wonder: “Why did he change his tune? Did she kill them or not? If she didn’t, who did? What’s going on here?” Soering’s ever-dwindling band of supporters can rationalize this story change (something about German libel law being stricter than American, etc.), but ordinary people see there’s something fishy here.

Fourth, I have it on good authority there will more more episodes of Small Town, Big Crime. There’s been almost a nine-month break, but more episodes are underway. The reporters are almost certainly looking for new witnesses or evidence which will refute or prove Soering’s claims one way or the other. This has previously led them to conclusions that weakened Soering’s case, so he cut them off. I imagine this will continue, although who know? Perhaps they’ll find a smoking gun proving someone else bled at the crime scene, or that Soering really was waiting at the Washington Marriott. If that happens, I will rebrand this blog the Jens Soering Innocence Blog and will write at length about it in the FAZ.

But I’m not holding my breath.

II. How did this disaster get started?

So, Soering’s innocence story isn’t quite dead, but it’s in intensive care, in a medically-induced coma, and the doctors shake their heads as they enter and leave the room.

It’s time to start the post-mortem/lessons learned phase of Soering’s innocence story. How did so many largely smart, decent people get so many things so wrong? Lots of people are already looking into this, and there will more discussion of this case in the German media in the coming months. One major theme will be how Soering managed to get so many people to believe such flimsy arguments.

This is a question lots of people on both sides of the Atlantic are asking themselves right now. On this side, Karin Steinberger and Markus Vetter, creators of the pro-Soering propaganda film “Das Versprechen/Killing for Love” are licking their wounds. Thanks to the work of William Holdsworth, myself, Terry Wright, and others, the movie has been discredited. Steinberger and Vetter have taken a hit to their reputations, and deservedly so.

They gave Soering a platform to spread lies and slander, and did nothing to distance themselves from what he said. Indeed, they indirectly endorsed his narrative by going on wild goose chases after the supposed “alternate suspects”, who of course never existed. In so doing they slandered Jim Farmer by name, allowing people to assert onscreen that Farmer had a criminal record and insinuate he was a hardcore drug dealer who may have helped Elizabeth kill her parents. Of course, they produce zero proof, just insinuation.

What a wonderful way to treat a guy who died tragically young years before the movie came out.

On the other side of the Atlantic, John Grisham, Jason Flom, Chip Harding, Amanda Knox, and others are hunkering down, waiting for yet more reputational hits.

Those hits are coming.

Take this 2019 episode of Jason Flom’s “Wrongful Convictions” podcast, featuring Soering, Harding, and John Grisham. It’s hasn’t aged well at all. Flom actually calls Elizabeth Haysom “the devil”. Soering goes on and on about his case, and almost everything he says is false. Grisham, Flom, and Harding cheer him on, contributing their own inaccurate statements about Soering’s case. Chip Harding, for instance, suggests that you “never hear anything” at Soering’s trial about an alternate suspect who was a female and who the police wanted shoeprints from (timestamp 23:22). This woman, whose name was Mary Fontaine Harris, was in fact an initial suspect, but later was eliminated. Was her name mentioned at trial? Why yes! Over 30 times, in fact. Her footprints were even entered into evidence and compared with those at the crime scene. This is just one of dozens of errors in the podcast.

How did these people allow themselves to get burned so badly? From my review of the records, I think what happened was basically a form of reputational cascade. Jimmy, a minor celebrity, watches “Killing for Love” (which convinced a lot of people) or reads one of Soering’s books. Jimmy then visits or calls Soering in prison. Soering, realizing Jimmy can help him, is his usual ingratiating self. Jimmy comes away liking Soering. Soering seems so honest and convincing! He’s in a terrible jam, facing decades in a harsh prison! I should really use my platform to do something. Jimmy then tweets out support for Soering, and gets lavish attention from Soering’s supporters.

Jimmy may not yet realize it, but he is now ‘locked in’ to Soering’s narrative. He accepted Soering’s one-sided account at face value, and can’t deviate from it in public. Jimmy then calls his good friend Kimmy, another minor celebrity. They have “The Conversation”:

Hey Kimmy, I just talked to this guy in prison in Virginia, Jens Soering, who seemed really nice. I mean he’s well-read, no tattoos, speaks fluent German and English. He confessed to murder only to protect his girlfriend, but then recanted. Nevertheless, he was convicted before a biased judge and a jury of hillbillies, and his defense lawyer did a terrible job and was later disbarred. And here’s the kicker (if this conversation happened post-2016): There’s new DNA evidence which show he didn’t do it! But nobody’s doing anything about it. He’s desperate and needs our help!

What does Kimmy do? Does she say: “That all sounds very interesting. Let me read his trial record and all the court decisions about his case and I’ll get back to you.” Of course not. She wants to help her friend and signal her virtue. Wrongful convictions are a hot topic right now. Besides, why should she be skeptical? Jimmy is her friend! She knows Jimmy! If Jimmy says Soering’s a nice guy who’s innocent, what am I supposed to do: give him the third degree?

Kimmy joins the bandwagon, and is duly served with Team Soering’s carefully-curated “press pack” of one-sided information. Not being the skeptical type, and not wanting to jeopardize her relationship with her good friend (or powerful colleague) Jimmy, Kimmy joins the bandwagon. And then Kimmy calls up her friend, a college professor, or talk-show host, or news anchor, or…

This is how it all snowballed. Soering got powerful influencers on his team, got them hooked into the Narrative, and encouraged them to reach out to other prominent or semi-prominent people. When contacted by a friend or trusted colleague, these folks naturally toned down their skepticism and relied on their friend’s reputation. Jimmy’s a smart, honest guy. If I can’t trust what he says about this case, who can I trust? In many cases, the reputational cascade actually began with Soering himself: many of his supporters have publicly stated they consider him a good friend.

The supporters all become committed to the Narrative: Soering is innocent, his confessions were obviously bogus, he was railroaded by a biased judge and crappy attorneys, Elizabeth framed him by exploiting his naivete etc. They don’t question the Narrative. Why? For a very important reason:

Because questioning the narrative would imply questioning the honesty or good judgment of their own friends or trusted colleagues. And would jeopardize their place on “the team” fighting to right an injustice.

Groupthink takes hold. When a supporter encounters something that seems to contradict the Narrative, Soering is always there with a soothing explanation. Heck, sometimes the supporter will pre-emptively come up with an explanation without even contacting Soering, because they want to believe him. The supporter soon learns to simply ignore the inconsistencies, like a wife pretending not to notice the lipstick on her husband’s shirt collar. Never underestimate the human craving to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Now a process of in-group polarization occurs. Team Soering members continuously egg each other on, discovering yet more supposed inconsistencies in the state’s case and yet more proof of Soering’s innocence. You can hear this in the podcast episode I linked above, in which Flom, Grisham, and Harding spur each other on to ever-more incredulous attacks on Soering’s confessions, along the lines of: “I can’t believe the cops swallowed this! How could anyone have possibly believed Soering?” From what they say, you get the impression that during the London interrogations there was a large, buzzing neon sign bolted to Soering’s head flashing “THIS IS A FALSE CONFESSION!”, but all the cops simply ignored it. Flom, Harding, and Grisham are off in some sort of alternate universe.

This, I’m convinced, is how the story spread so far and wide without anyone ever kicking its tires and looking under its hood: a reputational cascade among like-minded people, and quickly became so entrenched that nobody bothered questioning or doubting it. It was victory by groupthink.

Unlike many of Soering’s German supporters, his American supporters still apparently stand by him. I have gotten in touch with most of them, and none has responded except John Grisham, who confirmed he still thinks Soering is “completely innocent”. From my sources, most of the people in the Soering camp will not admit to having read any of my articles about the case, or the Wright report. This doesn’t mean they actually haven’t, it just means that, within the foxhole in which the battered remnant of Team Soering is hiding, it’s now considered taboo to even admit you’ve read anything critical of Soering’s claims. I find that behavior more than a bit cult-like. And it’s not going to end well. We’re shortly going to learn a lot more about how Team Soering went about selling Soering’s case, and the level of disregard for the truth shown by some members of the Team is…remarkable.

Now that the Narrative is crumbling everywhere you look, Soering supporters are learning a hard lesson: If you want to preserve your reputation for credibility, you’d better think twice about what a convicted double-murderer says to you about his case, no matter how civilized he appears. Soering’s case is the ultimate instance of appearance’s victory over substance. He was so ingratiating, so convincing, so aw-shucks believable that people decided to take the word of a confessed con-man and convicted killer over that of dozens of detectives and judges. It seems impossible when you put it that way, yet it happened.

Unraveling how this happened will be illuminating and important. Something like this — in which a con-man convinces hundreds of people to waste thousands of hours on his case, when they could have been working on behalf of the truly innocent — can’t be allowed to happen again. There are some influential people out there who really need to re-calibrate their bullshit detectors. I’m here to help.

4 thoughts on “How Did Jens Soering’s Arguments Spread? Groupthink & Reputational Cascades”

  1. He was given a free run.
    The Wright Report did not exist and nobody bothered to consult the trial transcripts.
    Nathan Heller of The New Yorker was the most sceptical of the MSM, but he too was presumably missing the vital evidence.
    Ditto Holdsworth who was steadily accumulating evidence, but it was The Wright Report which joined the dots.
    Elizabeth did occasionally refute some of his claims, such as the “exculpatory” DNA evidence pointing to the drifters, but never wasted much time on this.
    Why she didn’t write an essay demolishing his claims remains a mystery.
    Maybe she thought it would affect her chances of early release and better just to accept her guilt and serve her time?
    Ironically, Soering’s publicity machine probably got her out earlier than might otherwise have been the case, so she made the right call.
    But getting back to the main point of what fuelled the bandwagon and what were the motivations?
    That will be fascinating and these propogators of fiction deserve scrutiny.

  2. Tipp an C. Bertelsmann:

    Es wäre viel bedeutender und gesellschaftlich wertvoller, ein Buch auf den Markt zu bringen, in dem die Hinterbliebenen der Opfer über ihre “Rückkehr ins Leben” schreiben. Darüber, wie sie gelernt haben, mit dem brutalen Doppelmord an Nancy und Derek sowie Sörings jahrzehntelanger medialer Schlammschlacht zu leben, ohne daran zugrunde zu gehen.

    Nun hat Söring wieder mal die Möglichkeit, aus seinem von Straftaten geprägten Leben (Doppelmörder, Scheckbeträger, Kredithai…) Profit und Aufmerksamkeit zu schlagen. Unterstützung bekommt er von Leuten wie z.B. dem Ghostwriter dieses Buchs und anderen Marionetten, ganz frei nach Roland Kaisers Song:

    Applaus für deine Lügen, Applaus für dieses Spiel
    Von mir kriegst du Standing Ovations, Nein das ist doch nicht zu viel
    Applaus für deine Lügen…

    Zur Erinnerung: Ihre Namen waren Derek und Nancy Haysom.

  3. Another case that could use the Hammel touch is the murder of Anni Hindocha. This young and beautiful woman was the victim of a murder for hire staged to look like a robbery gone wrong. Though you would never know it from reading the Wikipedia article- which was written by a PR agent for the man accused of commissioning the murder: Anni’s husband.

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