I just finished skimming Jens Söring’s new book, “Return to Life”. It’s an interesting read! My congratulations go out to Söring and his ghostwriter. She received a tidy sum for her efforts, and she earned it.
I only have time for a few quick observations and two corrections. First, the book is 70% about Söring’s life behind bars and his new life in Germany. This part of the book is fascinating and often moving. Söring describes the numberless petty humiliations of American prison life with verve and passion. Although the tone is often a bit whiny, most of his complaints are on-point. You can learn a lot about the American prison system from Söring’s book, and much of it is seems accurate and is deeply unflattering to a country which claims to be a leader in human rights. The numberless petty and pointless indignities to which American prisoners are subjected are painful to read, and make an urgent case for sweeping reform.
Söring’s observations about his life in Germany are also interesting. Söring never identifies any of his new companions and friends by name, which is common in Germany, where privacy laws are strict. But he still manages to paint a moving portrait of the wrenching psychological re-adjustment caused by enjoying freedom — and edible food — for the first time in 33 years. Since I support Söring’s release, I also found these passages hopeful. I don’t personally get the impression that Söring will be a danger to people in the future, but the book reveals he still has a tendency to anger and obsession (aggravated by 33 years in prison), which is a bit disconcerting.
So I recommend the 70% of the book which deals with his time in prison and afterward.
But Söring wouldn’t be Söring if he weren’t compelled once again to re-litigate his innocence. The irony is that Söring says repeatedly that he wants to focus on the future, but two pages later he’s attacking Jim Updike and obsessing about the bloody sockprint and Elizabeth’s “betrayal”.
Söring also talks about me quite a bit! He never refers to me by name, but only as the “blogger” or the “Texan”. He portrays me as someone who has become obsessed with destroying his reputation for no apparent reason, which I found pretty funny. He even claims that at one point, he wanted to challenge me to a kind of debate about his case, but that his friends told him the better path was to remain completely silent. Based on my short look at the book so far, he never once actually responds to any argument I made and never once points to a single error in any of my articles. I have pointed out more errors in my own articles than he or his supporters ever have.
He says he shut down his social-media feeds in June 2020 because he was being viciously and personally insulted and his supporters doxxed by online trolls. Although I only saw a bit of this, I find his story plausible — there are indeed hundreds of obsessed people who seem to truly hate Söring and issued all sorts of personal attacks against him and his friends. I have always found that disgusting and still do. Maybe this was the real reason he fled social media. We’ll never know.
Yet those who would receive equity must have clean hands, as the legal saying goes, and Söring doesn’t. Just in a brief skim of the book, I spotted two defamatory statements.
The first relates to Donald Harrington, the business executive who testified at Söring’s trial that Söring had wounds on his hand and bruises on his face shortly after the murders. On page 91, Söring writes:
In meinem Prozess sagte ein Bekannter der Opfer aus, er habe bei der Trauerfeier für die Haysoms Blessuren an meinen Händen und in meinem Gesicht entdeckt. Diese Aussage versetzte mir einen ungeheuren Schock, denn wäre sie wahr gewesen, wäre sie ein Beweis für meine Schuld. Aber sie war selbstverständlich falsch.
During my trial, an acquaintance of the victims testified that, at the memorial service for the Haysoms, he saw wounds on my hands and face. This testimony shocked me greatly, since if it were true, it would be evidence of my guilt. But it was, of course, false.
In Virginia perjury is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $2,500. Donald Harrington, if you’re still alive, Jens Söring has just accused you of the crime of felony perjury. For some reason known only to you, you decided to lie under oath to help frame Jens Söring. According to…Jens Söring.
The other defamation is directed at Jim Updike, the trial prosecutor in Söring’s case and now a senior judge in Virginia: (p. 175-76)
Nach dem 14. Zusatz der amerikanischen Verfassung und dem Präzedenzfall Brady v. Maryland war Updike verpflichtet, meinem Verteidiger sämtliche Beweismaterialien zu übergeben, die dazu hätten beitragen können, meine Unschuld zu beweisen. Bereits 1996 stellte ein Richter fest, dass Updike diese verfassungsrecht- liche Pflicht verletzte, weil er es unterlassen hatte, meinen Anwalt über mögliche alternative Täter zu informieren.
Under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the precedent of Brady v. Maryland, Updike was obliged to provide my defense lawyer with all evidence which could have proven by innocence. Already in 1996, a judge decided that Updike had violated this constitutional duty because he failed to inform my lawyer of possible alternate suspects to the crime.
Söring then claims that although a judge had indeed found there to be a violation of his constitutional rights, the violation was deemed “harmless error” — i.e., there was so much other evidence of Söring’s guilt that the constitutional violation didn’t change the outcome of the trial.
This is a lie, which Söring must know, since he claims repeatedly in the book that he spent years studying the US justice system.
Here is what happened, according to the Virginia Supreme Court, which denied Söring’s petition for habeas corpus in 1998 in this decision. Söring’s lawyer filed an appeal in 1995. The Virginia Supreme Court dismissed all of Söring’s claims except for his claim that Jim Updike improperly withheld evidence of Shifflett and Albright, two drifters who were arrested for murder in the same county as the Haysom murders within a week of those crimes. The court held that if these claims were proven in court, then they might constitute harmful error. So the Virginia Supreme Court sent back Söring’s case to the Bedford County Circuit Court so that court could conduct a formal evidentiary hearing. Judge Sweeney conducted the hearing, in which the issue was thoroughly explored and both sides presented extensive argument. (You might be getting the idea that the Virginia criminal justice system took his claims seriously and gave him a fair chance to make his case, and you would be right.)
Judge Sweeney then concluded that there was no error, since there was no link between the drifters and the Haysom murders. Söring appealed that finding back up to the Virginia Supreme Court. That Court first reviewed the law on the matter. A prosecutor violates the 14th Amendment guarantee if he withholds material, exculpatory evidence from the defense. Those words are key — the evidence must be important and relevant (material) and it must tend to prove the defendant’s innocence. If it doesn’t satisfy these two criteria, there is no constitutional error. And that is exactly what the Court ruled. Here’s the entire discussion, so you can see the Court’s reasoning in context:
We hold, however, that the convict has not established that material exculpatory evidence was withheld from his defense. Upon review of this entire record, we conclude there is no reasonable probability that, had the evidence in question been disclosed to the defense, the result of the criminal trial would have been different. “The mere possibility that an item of undisclosed information might have helped the defense, or might have affected the outcome of the trial, does not establish `materiality’ in the constitutional sense.” Agurs, 427 U.S. at 109-10, 96 S.Ct. at 2400. At most, the convict has established only such “mere possibility.”
For example, there is no connection whatever between Albright and Shifflett and the Haysom murders. The convict only has proven that the men were present in the same county where the Haysoms were murdered near the time of the killings, and that the vagrants may have possessed a knife that may have been similar to the one used to kill the Haysoms. As the habeas judge pointed out, “There are no confessions, no matching blood on the knife, no matching fingerprints, no stolen articles, no connection between these two men and Elizabeth Haysom … and no logical explanation as to why two drunken robbers and murderers would kill the Haysoms without taking valuables, vehicles and liquor.”
Also, except for the stabbing of the victims, the Millikin and Haysom murders were dissimilar, as the habeas judge stated. The respective murders differed in motivation as well as method. The Haysom killings, committed earlier in time, involved slashing of the victims’ throats with severing of carotid arteries and jugular veins. Millikin’s throat was stabbed, not slashed, and he was sexually disfigured, a circumstance not present in the Haysom crimes. Albright and Shifflett were motivated by a desire to rob their victims. The Haysom murders were not motivated by robbery; many valuable items in plain view were left intact in the Haysom home.
Additionally, in order to entertain a reasonable doubt based on the theory that the Haysoms were murdered by Albright or Shifflett, or both, acting with Elizabeth, the jury would have to disregard the overwhelming evidence presented at Soering’s criminal trial that he alone committed the murders. For example, he confessed repeatedly in great detail, and the majority of those details fit the facts developed by the criminal investigation: the slashing of the victims’ throats compatible with the manner he said he held the knife; the injuries he sustained during the violence at the time of the murders, which injuries were later observed at the funeral; the exterior lights left burning by the murderer controlled by a switch in a back bedroom, a location unknown to a stranger to the home like Soering, but known to a family member like Elizabeth; and documentary evidence (letters and diary entries) implicating him in the crimes, just to mention a few of the many circumstances consistent with his confessions. Moreover, Soering had a motive to kill his lover’s parents, who opposed his relationship with their daughter. And, his flight to Europe after avoiding the police, resulting in the forfeiture of valuable scholarships, is also consistent with his admitted guilt.
In sum, the convict has failed to establish he is entitled to habeas relief. Confidence in the outcome of his criminal trial has not been undermined.”
I know the legalese may be a bit much, so I’ll translate what the Court is saying. They first hold that the evidence is not material exculpatory evidence. It isn’t relevant to whether Söring is guilty or not, and doesn’t tend to show he is innocent. Ergo, there is no constitutional violation. Jim Updike was not obliged to share it with the defense because it simply wasn’t relevant to the case in any way. The Court then went on, as courts often do, to state another ground for its ruling. The Court said even if we assumed the Shiflett/Albright evidence should have been disclosed, that would be harmless error. The jury would not have changed its verdict, because there’s simply zero evidence linking the drifters to the crime.
So no, no court has ever held that Jim Updike violated the Constitution of the United States. All courts to review the issue have expressly held he did not. Withholding favorable evidence is not only a breach of legal ethics but can also be a crime in very severe cases. Söring accused Updike of committing a constitutional violation, an ethical breach, and potentially even a crime. Without ever mentioning that two courts evaluated these allegations extensively, and came to the definitive conclusion that Updike did nothing wrong.
Once again, we see the typical pattern. If you had anything to do with his conviction or say something unfavorable about him, Söring will do his best to torch your reputation with rumors and, when he thinks he can get away with it, outright lies. As I have said before and will say again, when Söring stops lying about his case, I will stop correcting his lies.
It looks like I will still have plenty of work to do in the coming months. Unfortunately.