Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Das System Söring / The Söring System, Death Penalty, Evidence, Murder, Police and Prosecutors, Self-Promotion, Soering, True Crime

Vetter and Steinberger Got Important Facts Wrong, and Apparently Don’t Care

Anyone who’s followed the case knows that Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger uncritically swallowed their friend Jens Söring’s innocence tale, and that nothing they say about the case can be taken at face value. But what’s remarkable is how many basic facts they’ve gotten wrong in their statements. That’s going to be the focus of this post.

Once again, I have to give credit to the Söringologists at the Allmystery forum. They uncovered the two interviews I’ll be discussing here. Both of them stem from the time period 2016-2017, which was the Golden Age of pro-Söring propaganda in the German media. Emboldened by the success of Das Versprechen / Killing for Love, and secure in the knowledge that nobody would contradict — or even check — their claims, Vetter and Steinberger felt free to say just about anything about this case. Especially to vulnerable, defenseless German audiences.

Vetter’s Three Huge Mistakes and One Medium One

As I pointed out in an earlier post, Marcus Vetter said a lot of bizarre things about the Söring case during those publicity interviews for the movie in 2016 and 2017.

But for now, let’s concentrate not on spin, but on basic, cold, hard facts. Here’s another promotional interview with Vetter and Georg Zengerling (the cameraman), made during the Stuttgart premiere of the movie:

Of course, Vetter simply recites his friend Jens’ story, even going so far as to say “I believe Jens.” But I’m not primarily concerned with spin or bias here; I want to focus on provable factual errors. Vetter stresses repeatedly that he researched this case incredibly extensively, reviewing all the documents, watching the entire trial, and speaking with dozens of people.

Yet he doesn’t seem to have learned much, since he makes 3 big mistakes in this interview, and one smaller one.

Big Mistake #1: Söring’s Father

4:08: “[Söring’s] father was ambassador (Botschafter) in Washington.”

Vetter seems to imply that there might be more than one ambassador, and that Söring’s father was one of these. Vetter also made this boner in the interview I critiqued previously. Every part of this statement is false. There can only be one ambassador to a particular country, just as there can only be one President or Chancellor. Second, Söring’s father was never an ambassador, he was a mid-level consular official. Third, he was not stationed in Washington, D.C. at the time of the offense, and was, as far as I know, never stationed there. At the time of the killings, he was a vice-consul stationed in Detroit, Michigan (Transcript, 15 June 1990, p. 35).

This fact is, of course, crucial to Söring’s innocence story. Söring claimed (5 years after confessing) that he believed his father to be a high-enough ranked diplomat that Söring, as his son, would enjoy diplomatic immunity.1 If Söring’s father actually had been ambassador, this claim might have had a slight shred of credibility. But even within Söring’s alternate reality, Söring himself was mistaken about his father’s rank, and realized with dismay that his father was only a vice-consul, and therefore that his family members had no immunity.

This supposed “mistake” about his father’s rank is one of the linchpins of Söring’s own story — the story Vetter says he believes — and Vetter gets it wrong.

Big Mistake #2: Elizabeth and the Death Penalty

5:51: While in England, “[Elizabeth] made a deal with the prosecutor so that she would not have to fear the death penalty.”

Also false. Under Virginia law, only the person who actually physically commits a murder can be eligible for capital punishment. There was never any evidence Elizabeth personally killed her parents, thus she could never have received the death penalty. She was not charged with murder, and could not have been charged with murder given the evidence.

Once again, this shows that Vetter doesn’t even understand Söring’s own story. Söring claims he confessed to the crimes to prevent Elizabeth from getting the death penalty. That is, he confessed that he personally killed the Haysoms alone, which would automatically rule out the possibility of the death penalty for Elizabeth. And, in Söring’s alternate reality, he succeeded. Which means that as of June 8, 1986, there was no way Bedford County could possibly have charged Elizabeth with a crime which carried a potential death sentence.

Elizabeth could therefore never have made a “deal” to avoid the death penalty, because she was never at any risk of being sentenced to death. Period. Once again, Vetter’s error goes to the very heart of Söring’s own story.

Big Mistake #3: Söring was never pardoned

8:10: “He was pardoned (begnadigt) by the Democratic Governor McCain [sic].”

First of all, the governor’s name was Tim Kaine; Vetter seems to be confusing him with John McCain. Not a good sign. Second, Söring was of course never pardoned. Vetter apparently doesn’t understand the difference between being pardoned for a crime and being sent to another country to serve out your sentence (which is what Kaine had ordered). A pardon removes all criminal liability — you are freed from prison (if you’re still inside), and your criminal conviction is erased. It’s as if you were never convicted.

Of course, Söring never received a pardon because there was never any doubt about his guilt. The irony about this mistake is that the difference between being pardoned and receiving any other kind of relief still obsesses Söring to this day. He never fails to complain about not having received a pardon from Virginia, and even makes up alternative explanations why this is. How Vetter could remain ignorant of this critical distinction is beyond me.

Medium Mistake: Vetter doesn’t understand perhaps the most basic aspect of the American justice system

6:31: “There’s a legal principle that says that when there’s a very long prison sentence in play, the case must be resolved beyond any doubt. And that didn’t happen here.”

This is the medium error, but it’s still pretty striking. First of all, the same standard of proof applies in every American criminal trial, regardless of the severity of the crime Whether it’s a parking ticket or capital murder, the standard, as everyone but Vetter knows, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, not beyond all doubt.

Every criminal conviction is subject to doubt. Even if the defendant was caught on video, left DNA at the crime scene, and confessed, you could always attribute all of these things to a series of far-fetched coincidences with a probability of .0001% — or you could invoke the classic scapegoats of desperate defendants: Evil twin, hackers, aliens, a complex frame-up requiring the collaboration and silence of hundreds of people. But those doubts aren’t reasonable. No justice system in the world demands proof beyond all doubt, because no trial could ever satisfy this standard.

Vetter claims to have researched the case intensively, yet he doesn’t even know the legal standard used in American criminal trials — something millions of ordinary Germans know just from watching American crime dramas. Of course, this ignorance doesn’t prevent him from bashing American justice in the interview for being “uninterested in correcting its errors”.

Karin Steinberger’s Mistakes

On 4 August 2017, Karin Steinberger gave an interview (g) to the Deutschlandfunk Nova program about Söring’s case and the new film. Overall, the interview is standard stuff for pre-2019 coverage of the case in Germany; the moderator simply allows Steinberger to faithfully recite Söring’s tale of love and injustice, adding a few oohs and aahs and incredulous “I can’t believe they do that in the USA”-style remarks. The interview is full of spin, special pleading, and and inaccuracies, but Steinberger avoids the big mistakes Vetter made — for instance, she correcting identifies Söring’s father as a mid-ranking diplomatic functionary, not the “ambassador”.

Yet there are plenty of mistakes and grossly misleading elements here, too:

9:01: “The two detectives, Ricky Gardner and John [sic] Updike , flew to London…”

Foreign names can be complicated, but not when they’re only 3 letters long. Steinberger has apparently confused Jim Updike with the famous American novelist John Updike. Also, Jim Updike was, of course, the District Attorney of Bedford County, not a detective.

9:50: Söring confessed “without an attorney” and his confession on June 8 was “not recorded”

While technically accurate, these assertions are also grossly misleading. Söring didn’t have a lawyer during his June 1986 confessions because he explicitly stated he didn’t want one. In writing. His confession on June 8 was not recorded because Söring refused to let it be recorded. At trial, Söring — who had listened to Ricky Gardner describing that confession — explicitly admitted that Gardner was accurately recounting what Söring had told him.

In any case, all of this is irrelevant, since, on 30 December 1986, Söring confessed (1) in German; (2) while being recorded; (3) to a German prosecutor; (4) with his own German lawyer by his side; (5) after being allowed to privately confer with that lawyer for 20 minutes. Both the Virginia Supreme Court and the federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that even if any of the June 1986 statements were not admissible, that would have been irrelevant, since the detailed 30 December 1986 confession (along with all the other evidence) was enough all by itself to sustain Söring’s conviction.

If Steinberger had been covering President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963, she might well have described it as being “unexpectedly cut short” without explaining why.

10:15: Both Haysom and Söring confessed, but, compared to Haysom’s “confession,” Söring’s had “a few more details”.

I guess this all depends on your interpretation of what “a few” (ein paar) is. Apparently Steinberger thinks it means “hundreds”.

13:40: Other than Söring’s confession there was “nothing” against him. There was more evidence that Elizabeth was at the crime scene than Söring, including the fact that some blood of her blood type was found there.

Was Steinberger brazen enough to mention that there was (a tiny fleck) of blood which may have been Elizabeth’s blood type at the crime scene, while never mentioning that there were several stains of Söring’s blood type?

Yes, she was.

Of course the other evidence Steinberger mentions — fingerprints and cigarette butts — was irrelevant, since there was no evidence linking these things to the crime, and Haysom had visited the house just one week prior to the murders. I don’t know what’s more dismaying — that Steinberger believed this evidence is relevant, or that she thinks her audience might.

15:00: Richard Neaton was an out-of-town lawyer who didn’t understand Virginia’s “extremely complex” procedural law.

But was accompanied during the entire trial by Virginia trial lawyer and ex-prosecutor William A. Cleaveland, who did.

15:43: The prosecution put on a “tire expert” who said Söring’s foot “fits like a glove” with the impression left at the crime scene.

Hallett wasn’t allowed to testify as an expert, wasn’t specialized in tire tracks, and never once uttered the phrase “fits like a glove”.

Steinberger claims to have spent “11 years” researching this case, but you certainly wouldn’t know it.

Despite withering criticism of their work from me, Terry Wright, Jens Söring Guilty as Charged, the podcast Das System Söring (g) (500,000 listens and counting) and now even German media outlets like Übermedien (g) and even Deutschlandfunk (g), neither Vetter nor Steinberger has ever publicly defended their movie or their statements on Jens Söring’s case. In my view, the reason for that is simple: There is no defense.

  1. Even if Söring had enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Germany would have waived it in return for an assurance that Virginia would not seek the death penalty. Countries which are friends and allies routinely waive (i.e., give up) diplomatic immunity when it comes to serious violent crimes. For instance, in 1988, Rudy van den Borre, a member of the Belgian military and a driver for the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C., randomly murdered two men in Florida after a fight with his lover. He used an embassy-issued handgun to kill them. Van den Borre arguably had diplomatic immunity, as a staff member of the Belgian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Just as there can only be one ambassador, there can only be one embassy, always located in the host state’s capital city. All other diplomatic representations in a country are called consulates, like the one where Söring’s father worked.

    The State Department asked Belgium to waive any possibly diplomatic immunity van den Borre might enjoy (whether he actually had immunity is doubtful, but since Belgium waived it, the issue isn’t important), and Belgium did so, requesting one standard concession: that the State of Florida not pursue the death penalty against van den Borre. Florida agreed, and van den Borre was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains to this day, fruitlessly begging the Belgian authorities to try to get him out.

    Why did Belgium waive diplomatic immunity? Simple: to insist on diplomatic immunity for two cold-blooded intentional murders would have caused a huge scandal, and serious damage to U.S.-Belgian relations. Parking tickets and drunk & disorderly fines are one thing, but no country would agree to allow diplomatic immunity if it meant a blank check for diplomatic staff to go around murdering the host country’s citizens.

    So even if Söring had enjoyed diplomatic immunity of some sort, Germany would certainly have waived it, just as Belgium did. The whole issue has always been a red herring.

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