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Jens Soering still hoping for release

The German native goes before the state parole board today for the sixth time since his imprisonment.

(by Rex Bowman, The Roanoke Times, Thursday, July 29, 2010)

In 1990 Jens Soering was convicted of following through on a plot he made with his girlfriend to stab her parents to death. The case garnered national media attention.
In 2010 Convicted murderer Jens Soering said he was "personally hurt" when Gov. Bob McDonnell blocked his repatriation.

DILLWYN -- Jens Soering isn't the kind of guy to give up. He just wants to go away.

Soering, one of Virginia's most notorious convicted killers, said Wednesday he was "personally hurt" and "devastated" by Gov. Bob McDonnell's recent successful effort to block Soering's repatriation to Germany -- but he said he has no plans to give up his fight to win freedom.

"I'm not abandoning hope," said Soering, sinewy from serving years in the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn. "Prison is a living death. It's not actually a real life that we have here. But I'm hopeful."

Soering's determination is sure to rile many who view his efforts as an outrageous attempt to escape justice for the vicious 1985 murder of two elderly Bedford County residents. His case goes before the state parole board for the sixth time today, and those determined to see him die in prison won't breathe easily until he is turned down for parole once again.

"I don't think he should ever be released," said Maj. Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, whose investigation led to Soering's conviction. "What he deserves is much worse than what he got." Soering, 43, has been in prison for 24 years, with the rest of his two life sentences still stretching out before him. He was convicted of knifing his girlfriend's parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom of Boonsboro, to death while he was a freshman attending the University of Virginia on a scholarship.

After years of proclaiming his innocence from behind bars (despite initially confessing to the crime) and winning some supporters, Soering was given cause for hope in January. That's when outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine told the U.S. Justice Department that Virginia would not stand in the way of Soering's transfer to his native Germany if the federal government wanted to send him there.

The move, for which Soering's lawyers had lobbied for years, outraged Bedford residents and members of the Haysom family. Upon becoming governor, McDonnell told justice officials Virginia's stance had changed -- the state would not give up Soering.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government had no choice but to accept McDonnell's word as the end of the matter. So, after six months of hope, Soering's future abruptly contracted to the space of his prison cell.

Soering, whose hair is starting to go gray at the temples, talked about getting the news for the first time Wednesday during an interview with The Roanoke Times. He said he was sitting on his bunk in his cell when he got the bad news on July 7.

"My cellmate leaned over from the top bunk and said, 'Hey, you're on the crawl on the Weather Channel. You've been turned down for repatriation.' Five minutes later a guy named Mike walked by and told me the same thing.

"I don't think there's any good way to hear it. It's devastating. It's basically a form of death. It feels like you're dying. This was my best chance for getting out of here."

So hopeful had he been that Kaine's act would spring him, Soering said, he had started making plans to create an "Innocence Project" once back in Germany to help wrongly convicted prisoners there. He acquired Internet domain names, read books on how to use the Web ("I've never been on the Internet," he said), studied volumes on running nonprofit organizations and even began to think about having a girlfriend.

"Hope builds up," he recalled. "You start making plans for the future, and that life takes on a reality, and you start thinking about things you could do."

But then McDonnell wrote Holder the letter revoking Virginia's permission for repatriation. Soering said McDonnell's move was devastating because he had read McDonnell's previous comments on the need to give prisoners a second chance, and he was sure McDonnell would approve of Kaine's effort.

"I felt personally hurt by him," Soering said of McDonnell. "I felt like somebody I'd placed my hopes in to make significant changes along the lines I've been calling for -- faith-based prison reform." Soering, who has written various Christian books in prison, wrote one titled "The Church of the Second Chance: A Faith-Based Approach to Prison Reform" that approvingly quotes McDonnell's views on the subject.

McDonnell's successful move to block repatriation, then, hit Soering like a bolt from the blue, he said.

"I was totally and utterly shocked," he said. "I was just bowled over. I didn't see this coming."

Wednesday, McDonnell's office declined to respond to Soering's comments. (In his January address to the General Assembly, McDonnell pledged to "work with faith-based and community organizations to create an effective prisoner re-entry program to keep people out of jails and prisons." But he also said tough prison sentences were necessary.)

Soering said he has only three ways of leaving prison besides death: repatriation, clemency or parole. Clemency is unlikely, he said, and repatriation is a dead issue for now.

And though by all accounts he is a model prisoner, he has been denied parole five times already. Still, he said, he's not giving up. "I had hope. And I still have hope.
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