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

Steinberger & Vetter’s Campaign Against A Dead Man’s Reputation

“Why are you so interested in attacking this individual? I haven’t asked you about him.”

— Bedford County District Attorney Jim Updike, June 18, 1990.

Let’s take a detailed look at one of the most disturbing features of the German media’s campaign to exonerate Jens Söring: Their slander of a dead man, Jim Farmer, as a drug dealer and potential murderer.

Why Söring Attacked Jim Farmer

It all started, as these lies often do, with Jens Söring. It’s June 18, 1990. Jens Söring is testifying at his trial for the murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom. He unveils his brand-new story before a skeptical jury. His new version? Elizabeth Haysom drove to Lynchburg, Virginia, murdered her parents with her own two hands, then returned to the hotel room Söring and Haysom shared in Washington, D.C.

But this new story posed new challenges for Jens Söring. If he knew beforehand that Elizabeth was planning to kill her parents, then he would be guilty of the crime of being an accessory before the fact to capital murder, which carried a possible penalty of 20 years to life in prison. That was the same penalty range Söring himself was facing for murder, since the prosecution was not seeking the death penalty.

Therefore, Söring needed to convince the jury at all costs that he had no idea what Elizabeth was planning to do. So he invented another story: Elizabeth lied to him before driving off to murder her parents by telling him a cover story. That story was that she was going to pick up a load of drugs and smuggle them to the University of Virginia to repay a debt to her drug dealer.

This allegation kills not just two, but even three birds with one stone. First, it smears Elizabeth Haysom, who had earned Söring’s unsleeping hatred by testifying against him. Second, it clears Söring of the charge of accessory before the fact to double-murder (he could still be prosecuted for accessory after the fact, but that’s a much less serious crime). Third, it explained (at least to Söring’s satisfaction, if to nobody else’s) why the couple created an “alibi” for their time in Washington, D.C. — Elizabeth needed to be able to convince her parents that she was innocently watching movies and shopping with Jens Söring, not picking up drugs and/or getting high.

But who was this sinister drug dealer? Söring and Elizabeth Haysom were a couple, and Haysom (according to Söring) was a drug addict. It would sound implausible for Söring to not know who was supplying his addict girlfriend with her “drugs” (Söring never actually identifies which drugs he’s talking about).

So Söring picked a target for his accusation of drug dealing: A college buddy of of theirs named Jim Farmer.

Who Was Jim Farmer?

I’m not going to go into much detail about Jim Farmer, because, as you will see, he has nothing to do with this case. But here’s the general background: Jim Farmer was a real person. Like Söring, Farmer had also received scholarships to the University of Virginia. He was a friend of Elizabeth Haysom. Söring thus knew Farmer, although they weren’t friends. Farmer graduated from the University of Virginia and went on to work for a software company. He suffered from poor health, and died at age 48 in 2014.

Why did Söring pick Jim Farmer? Because Elizabeth Haysom had once mentioned Jim Farmer in a letter to Jens Söring, and then, in an unrelated comment in that same letter, talked about smoking a “joint” (it’s not even clear that she smoked it with Farmer).

That’s all.

On this microscopic reed, Söring constructed an elaborate fantasy in which Jim Farmer was not only a drug dealer, but a sinister blackmailer and even a possible accomplice to murder. I won’t go into this matter in much more detail, because the purpose of this post is to defend Jim Farmer from unfair attacks, not to amplify them. A much more detailed account of Söring’s bizarre fantasies about Farmer can be found starting at page 220 of the Wright Report.

Söring Deploys Jim Farmer as a Human Shield During his Trial

Under direct examination by his lawyer Rick Neaton, Söring described what he claims Elizabeth said about her drug dealer on March 30, 1985 (Trial transcript, 18 June, p. 52):

Um, well, I mean she told me who the person was, all right, the person was either a sophomore or junior Echols scholar [i.e., gifted student scholarship, like those Haysom and Söring had] who both of us knew called Jim Farmer. And you know, I loved her, you know, I told her if you’re in trouble with this guy and he wants money or something, I will give you the money, that’s not a problem, let’s not do this because it’s dangerous.

But Söring wasn’t done smearing Farmer:

[Söring]: Well at that point she explained to me what her real concern was, was that she wasn’t worried about getting caught on this particular trip, and that her main worry was being blackmailed basically, being under the power of Jim Farmer once she had done this.

Q  Why did she think she could be under this person’s power, or this person’s control?

A  Well Jim Farmer’s parents also live in Lynchburg, and she told me that they knew each other socially, the families. And she said that if she did this, Jim Farmer would then be able to blackmail her about it, about threatening to go to her parents, her parents were very worried about Elizabeth using drugs, because she had used a lot of drugs in the past. And and if somebody who is a friend or the family like Jim Farmer spoke to her parents about it, and not only made an accusation that she was still using drugs, but could actually name the specific date and occasion in which she was doing drug dealing, then her parents would obviously get really furious.

Söring continued to accuse Jim Farmer of being a sinister drug dealer in the remainder of his (friendly) direct examination. During cross-examination by District Attorney Jim Updike, Söring again spontaneously brought up Jim Farmer, prompting Updike to observe: “Why are you so interested in attacking this individual? I haven’t asked you about him.” (18 June, p. 176).

At this point, everyone in the courtroom was asking themselves one simple question:

Who and where is Jim Farmer?

Farmer was an ordinary middle-class college graduate with a long paper trail. He would have been easy to locate. In fact, his father was a local judge. A simple phone call was enough to get in touch with him.

If what Jens Söring was saying were true, Jens Söring could have simply called Jim Farmer to the witness stand. Either he would admit the truth of Söring’s accusations, or he would deny them, but be subject to cross-examination by Söring’s private, well-paid lawyers. That might have raised some questions for the jury. On the other hand, if what Jens Söring was saying was false, then the prosecution could have called Jim Farmer to the witness stand to deny Söring’s claims, thus exposing Söring as a liar.

All it would take is a phone call to Jim Farmer’s home. This might be a good time to mention that 30 March 1985, the night when the Haysoms were killed, was Jim Farmer’s birthday. Söring is obsessed by this fact, and has even suggested that Jim Farmer got so high on (as always unspecified) drugs that he joined Elizabeth Haysom, drove hundreds of miles, maybe picked up some accomplices along the way, and helped Elizabeth murder her parents. I’m not joking. That’s was Story Number 5 (of 6 so far, likely more to come) that Jens Söring has put forward.

The reality’s more prosaic. Jim Farmer just held a party at his house to celebrate. Dozens of corroborating witnesses were available. Surely if Jim Farmer left his own birthday party to kill two people he barely knew hundreds of miles away, someone might have noticed?

So why did neither the prosecution nor defense ever call Jim Farmer to the witness stand?

The answer is simple: Everyone knew Söring was lying.

Söring’s lawyers could have called Farmer to the witness stand but they didn’t, because they knew there was no evidence to back up Söring’s claims. The prosecution didn’t call Farmer to the witness stand because Söring’s claims were so ridiculous that they posed zero threat to the prosecution’s case. Nobody in the courtroom or among TV viewers took what Söring said seriously.

Of course, Söring’s remarks were a vicious slander against Jim Farmer. If he had attacked Farmer anywhere but a courtroom, he might have been hit with a massive lawsuit: Falsely accusing someone of a crime is considered defamation per se in common law. It is the paradigm case of what defamation law is supposed to prevent.

But people testifying in American courts have a privilege to make defamatory statements — that is, they can’t be sued for their testimony in court. Witnesses enjoy this immunity so they will feel free to testify without worrying about lawsuits. But of course, the immunity sometimes also protects people who lie.

Steinberger and Vetter Revive the Slander, This Time Against a Dead Man

After the trial, Söring realized that although he could testify in court about Jim Farmer without fearing a lawsuit, that no longer applied when he was in prison. So in his 1995 book Mortal Thoughts, Söring re-named Farmer “Jack Bauer” (Bauer=farmer in German). In his 2012 German book, he called him “Jeff Ranchero” (Ranchero is a Spanish word for farmer).

Yet Karin Steinberg and Marcus Vetter weren’t so cautious. They decided to revive Söring’s personal attack on Jim Farmer under Farmer’s real name in their 2016 pro-Söring propaganda vehicle Das Versprechen / Killing for Love. They broadcast a clip of the testimony I excerpted above in which Söring accuses Jim Farmer of being a drug dealer and potential blackmailer.

But they didn’t stop there.

They broadcast footage of a private investigator looking up a “James Farmer” on the Internet and claiming that Farmer had “a criminal record” which was “probably traffic [i.e. driving offense]” but then he adds “possession of a controlled substance [i.e., illegal drugs]” and even claims Farmer “did jail time”.

The viewer is given no evidence to back up these potentially career-destroying accusations.

The filmmakers then show a clip of Ricky Gardner accurately noting that nobody — including Jens Söring — had ever mentioned Jim Farmer’s name in connection with the Söring murders until Söring unveiled his new story at trial. “This is coulda, woulda, shoulda hindsight”. Then we see a phone call between David Watson and Gail Ball (this is from the subtitles to the English version of the movie which I linked to above):

01:00:36,960 --> 01:00:39,640
- Hello?
- Gail, David.

01:00:39,640 --> 01:00:42,880
Yes. What have you found out?

01:00:42,880 --> 01:00:45,000
Farmer is deceased.

01:00:46,200 --> 01:00:48,080
Oh, goodness.

01:00:48,080 --> 01:00:49,720
He passed away two weeks ago.

01:00:50,960 --> 01:00:55,440
If he was involved in this thing he carried forever,

01:00:55,440 --> 01:00:59,960
can you believe that no detective went and talked to him?

01:00:59,960 --> 01:01:01,480
Oh, my dear.

We now discover why Steinberger and Vetter may have felt free to name Jim Farmer. I don’t know why they made this decision — I can’t read minds. It would be interesting to see them asked this question. One very interesting fact is that when the filmmakers went to accuse a living person of possibly knowing something about the Haysom murders, a man named Ned B., they bleeped out his last name:

01:35:43,000 --> 01:35:46,160
- Jim Farmer, Ned

01:35:46,160 --> 01:35:51,280
and Elizabeth were in the same club at UVA.

01:38:39,080 --> 01:38:44,080
"Mrs Ball, I have no intention of becoming embroiled in this matter.

01:38:44,080 --> 01:38:46,600
"I know nothing about the murders

01:38:46,600 --> 01:38:49,640
"and I have no opinion about the murders.

01:38:49,640 --> 01:38:52,520
"I have nothing else to say in this matter.

01:38:52,520 --> 01:38:54,520
- "Edward

Only the filmmakers can say why they bleeped out this man’s name, but not Jim Farmer’s. But what is true is that under the law at the time Farmer could no longer sue to defend his reputation, because he had died two years before the film was released. The law in most American states says that you cannot slander a dead person, and therefore that the estate or surviving relatives of a deceased person cannot sue in that person’s name.

Legally, therefore, Steinberger and Vetter are in the clear. They could not formally “slander” Jim Farmer, under the law at that time, because he was dead (2014) at the time the statements about him were broadcast (2016). According to the information I have, Steinberger and Vetter’s actions conformed to the then-applicable law in the jurisdiction where the footage was shot. I.e., they did nothing illegal. Let me repeat: they did nothing illegal.

But would you have done what they did?

Now, let’s also look at Watson’s suggestion that detectives should have questioned Jim Farmer about his involvement in the Haysom murders.

There was never any indication, not even the remotest hint of evidence, that Jim Farmer was a drug dealer or that had anything to do with the killing of the Haysoms — until, five years after the crimes, Jens Söring, for first time, attacks Farmer in a desperate ploy to shift the blame for the crimes Söring had confessed to again and again.

Söring offers no proof for his attack, and his lie was so obvious that the prosecution didn’t even try to rebut it. The prosecutor just noted Söring’s creepy obsession with defaming Farmer, and then moved on to other subjects. The jury, obviously, saw through Söring’s lie and convicted him unanimously based on the “overwhelming evidence that he personally killed the Haysoms”, to quote the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Yet Dave Watson thinks that detectives should have questioned Jim Farmer — presumably after Söring’s trial, since nobody had even imagined he played a role in the offense before Söring mentioned him. Thus, Watson thinks that after Söring was convicted as the sole killer based on his confessions and “overwhelming” evidence and sent to prison for life, detectives should have begun harassing an uninvolved third party, based solely on the baseless allegations of a perjurer, convicted con man, and convicted murderer.

Why on earth would they do this?

Farmer’s name comes up 14 times during the movie Killing for Love. Jens Söring is quoted as saying that Elizabeth identified Jim Farmer as “her drug dealer”. As we saw above, a figure in the movie alleges that Farmer had a criminal record for drugs and traffic offenses and even spent time in jail. Yet we are offered no verification of this information at all — no proof this was the same James Farmer (you could hardly invent a more common English name), no information on when or where these alleged convictions happened, or what the underlying facts were. We certainly are given no indication at all that Farmer was a drug dealer, much less a blackmailer or murderer. Watson is even allowed to insinuate that Farmer might have had something to do with the grisly murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom (“if he was involved in this thing he carried forever”).

All of this because Farmer enjoyed a joint once in a while, like 30% of Americans in 1985 (and like the majority of college students at that time — I know, I was there).

To me, the gratuitous maligning of Jim Farmer’s memory is the lowest point in a film which consists mostly of low points. Incidentally, this aspect of the film might well have exposed the filmmakers to civil and even potentially criminal liability if the case had taken place in Germany, where there are strong protections for the privacy and reputation even of convicted criminals (g) and where it is a crime to slander the dead (g).

Steinberger and Vetter exploited America’s liberal free-speech laws to malign a dead man before millions of strangers, all based on nothing more than a desperate lie told by a perjurer, con man, and murderer.

If they had any decency, Karin Steinberger and Marcus Vetter would long ago have issued Jim Farmer’s family a public apology.

9 thoughts on “Steinberger & Vetter’s Campaign Against A Dead Man’s Reputation”

  1. Soring’s hatred for Elizabeth because she testified against him is irrational because it was he who chose to confess and implicate her and that got them both 33 1/2 years in prison.
    She’s the one who should be feeling hatred.

  2. First of all, I know that Jim Farmer was born in March and in fact, died in March some years back, aged 46 or so. And though I did learn in Lynchburg that he had fought juvenile diabetes all his life, it was still stunning when I learned that he had died. The person who told me about his diabetes (in 1987) looked so very grave when she said it that I dropped the subject. (The subject being that he was someone who knew a great deal about the case. I had met him in the spring of 1986 when he was a summertime bartender at a restaurant I liked on Elliewood, though at that time we had talked only a little about the case, which I regarded then as something kind of intramural and local.) I have no idea what Jim’s kind of life could have been like. There could have been moments of deep depression. I think that drugs like marijuana could very well have become more necessary as he grew older. I don’t think you can drink alcohol. He did have some sort of a run-in with the police in Seattle. This can be found in the court records of the county that Seattle is in, King County. (There has been a lot of interest in this matter among some writers in Charlottesville. I am afraid that it has to be dealt with.) It is an odd aside, but medical marijuana is thought to be good for the high blood pressure that comes with diabetes. He may also have gotten some weed for his friends when he was a student, but he was never a dealer. I don’t know for sure that it was his birthday on March 30, 1985, though I assume it was. But there is a point here that I think ought to be made. The party was given by a group of people, not just Jim (whose friends called him ‘Jimbo’), and this probably included Ned B. and perhaps other housemates here in Charlottesville.( Ned B. incidentally has by now built up an international reputation in his field.) The party was the last big party of the year (eight kegs or more) for that group, a number of them gay –the hosts were straight-up gay and were quite clear about that. It didn’t really matter to the guests who came. Summer in Charlottesville can be hot, the traffic on Rugby Road diminishes, the world seems to relax a little and I have never seen so many tiger lillies anywhere. But it is as early as April that University social life starts to wind down. Papers and projects are due in, and, of course, there are the upcoming final exams. There is also registration for summer school (when social life picks up again) or the coming semester, and the all- important brand- new adult task of putting a roof over one’s head. By early May it is over. People take exams and simply leave. So the party was in a way a farewell party for the old and new friends of that academic year. Everybody in that group knew who was there and who was not. Elizabeth was regarded by the gay group at UVA as being a gay woman. It was not understood about Jens Soering. They were not there.

    The reason they were not there was because Elizabeth was told, maybe only on late Thursday, that the meeting scheduled for her to sign the lease with the people managing the place where she was going to live the next year was put off for a week or so. I think that when Soering woke up on Friday, March 29, 1985 he did not know that it was D-Day. He was told a few hours later. Elizabeth had decided that something had to be done. Impulsive. A characteristic of BPD? They had rented cars twice before. As to the mileage. Surely they knew about that? “We blanked it.” Another characteristic of BPD?

    I think that Elizabeth Haysom was in a state of inner hysteria in the weeks that followed. When she was confronted by a friend, a young woman who liked and admired her, with the question about the party– “Where were you?” Elizabeth panicked, lied, and stammered that she had been there. This got around very quickly. Suspicion had become so strong in the student body by late September that Elizabeth and Jens were practically trapped in her rooms in the Unitarian chapter house on Rugby Road.

    Jim Farmer called a meeting of many of the gay group at UVA and spoke about the alarming, almost incredible, situation they were in. I was told he was quite eloquent and began with: “Dear friends…”

    I think Soering was outraged by this when he heard about it. I assume his thinking was something like: Who is he to be saying these things about me?

    Jim Farmer’s father is the Honorable James … Farmer. He was for many years the judge of the General District Court of Bedford County. That court is in the same building as the circuit court. I regarded this statement by Jens as an attack on the court itself. I felt very tense hearing that, and I knew that many people in the courtroom that day knew exactly who Jim Farmer was. And I knew it was a very cold, calculated libel by a desperate young man. Interestingly, and it was ghost talk, but I heard that the legal powers that be had considered that Judge Farmer could have been the judge who tried the case if Judge Sweeney had recused himself.

  3. Was war die Motivation von Steinberger und Vetter, diesen einseitigen, manipulativen Film über Jens Söring zu drehen?
    Neben wirtschaftlichen Interessen lässt sich vermuten, dass eine gewisse anti-amerikanische Einstellung und ein Mutter-Theresa-Syndrom eine Rolle gespielt haben könnten. Andernfalls ist es nicht zu erklären, warum sie bereitwillig die unplausiblen Beteuerungen Sörings propagiert haben.

    Man könnte Steinberger, Vetter und auch Sörings Medienanwalt Grulert für kritikfähige und vernunftbegabte Personen halten. Ihr Handeln gibt ein anderes Zeugnis ab.
    Scheinbar sind sie bereit Grenzen zu überschreiten.
    Offensichtlich haben sie noch nicht festgestellt, dass sie dadurch ihre eigene Reputation beschädigen.

  4. Justizirrtümer verkaufen sich aktuell gut. Mundo, Toth, Darsow, Söring, Genditzki. Das Problem: alle, wie sie da sind, haben die Taten begangen und sind rechtmäßig verurteilt. Aber das ist den Medien egal. Zu all diesen Fällen gibt es sehr einseitige Berichte und nur wenige, die die volle Wahrheit, lückenlos, abbilden.

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