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Intermezzo

Excerpt from "The Way of  the Prisoner" by Jens Soering. Reprinted with permision from Lantern Books


Is Henri Nouwen right, that truly "everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward full realization of our humanity"? Is it true that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28)" If so, then even the horrific crime in which I involved myself as an eighteen-year-old might be more than just a senseless tragedy. The Way of the Prisoner is in part an exploration of that possibility, that hope of light in all the darkness my sins helped bring about. But before we can examine that hope, you may wish to learn the plain and not-so-simple truth about the crime that put me in prison.

The four chapters of this Intermezzo will be markedly different in both content and tone from the rest of this book, because the time has come for me to recount the facts of my criminal case. This material will, I hope, allow you to use my admittedly extreme example as a model for a similar Centering Practice analysis of your own life and "prison" during the "unloading of the unconscious" phase of Centering Prayer, and to examine the existential situation out of which The Way of the Prisoner arose, to determine whether it is merely one man's iconoclastic spiritual palliative or a path others, like you, may tread with benefit too.

The next few chapters narrate the investigation, trial and appeal in a straightforward, fairly dry manner, while the Centering Practice section of Book II analyzes this raw material in terms of our kenotic paradigm. If you are uninterested in this part of my past, please feel free to skip this Intermezzo and proceed to Book II. None of what follows is an integral part of this volume.

Describing my criminal case is fraught with dangers for me. There are those who, perhaps quite understandably, will view The Way of the Prisoner as nothing more than an elaborate attempt to manipulate my way out of prison, and they will scrutinize this section in particular for any hint of dishonesty or deceit. The slightest mistake, the smallest bias thus exposes this volume to condemnation in its entirety.

Since The Way of the Prisoner is the only child that I, as a "double-lifer", am likely to ever produce, I have worked very hard to protect it from such attacks by scrupulously checking and re-checking each statement of fact. Every individual sentence below is directly supported by a specific piece of evidence, document or transcript passage in the thousands of pages of court records. My appellate attorney, Ms. Gail Starling Marshall, has reviewed the chapters that pertain to the trial and "can report that they portray the evidence with accuracy and thoroughness." Fortunately, and somewhat strangely, there exists no dispute at all between prosecution and defense about what the facts of the case are; the only disagreements revolve around how the evidence should be weighed.

Lest I be accused of selecting facts so as to slant the following presentation of the case in my favor, I provide you below with all the prosecution evidence, no matter how minor, while skipping over some secondary defense evidence and arguments. Most likely you will nevertheless begin to suspect that I am leaving out some crucial damning information, because, apart from my "confession"? there is so very little substantive evidence against me. All I can tell you is that there really is no more; I have omitted nothing. To be fair, you should also take careful note that the defense's evidence is equally weak: I am unable to prove my innocence, nor can I establish a third party's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps you will come to agree with me that, based on the facts alone, no one except the persons directly involved can know what actually happened on the evening of the crime.

To assure fairness I carefully avoid making statements in my narration of the case such as, "I did not murder Derek and Nancy Haysom", since that is a mere allegation which no court has accepted. Instead, I write, "I testified at trial that I did not murder Derek and Nancy Haysom", an undisputed matter of record.

[Also, whenever I provide background information about which there might be some difference in point of view, I indent the passage and set it in italics as here; or I may distinguish a certain phrase or sentence in a passage of regularly-set text by inserting the italicized words "in my opinion."]

Because my purpose below is to lay out the evidence relevant to my criminal conviction, I describe neither my relationship with my co-defendant, Elizabeth Roxanne Haysom, nor the months we spent on the run in Europe and Asia. Readers interested in those aspects of the case must turn to my autobiography, Mortal Thoughts. (1)

1. The Investigation

On April 3, 1985, Bedford County, Virginia, sheriff's deputies entered the home of Derek and Nancy Haysom at the request of friends of the family who had been unable to contact the couple since March 30. Immediately upon opening the front door and stepping into the living room, the officers discovered the body of Derek Haysom, 71, lying across the door to the dining room to the left. His throat had been repeatedly slashed all the way to the spinal column, and later twenty-five stab wounds were found on his body.

Beyond the dining room in the kitchen lay Nancy Haysom, 52, with her throat cut and her body stabbed seventeen times. Oddly enough, almost all the stab wounds were extremely shallow, especially compared to the enormous injuries to the neck.

[The lack of depth of the wounds may indicate a physically weak and/or psychologically disturbed attacker.]

The floors of all three rooms were smeared with blood, and the furniture in the dining room had clearly been disturbed in a struggle. Eventually some blood would also be discovered in the master bedroom's bathroom to the right of the living room.

Derek and Nancy Haysom had met and married in southern Africa, where their youngest daughter Elizabeth, 20, was born. Between them they also had five other children from previous marriages, all of whom were successful professionals residing (with one exception) in Canada at the time of the crime. Derek Haysom had worked as a steel executive in Africa, Europe and Nova Scotia, Canada, and had recently retired to his wife's hometown of Lynchburg in southwestern Virginia. Their modest two-bedroom cottage lay just across the Lynchburg City / Bedford County line in the wealthy suburb of Boonsboro among far more extravagant residences.

Only one hour's car drive away, Elizabeth Haysom attended the prestigious University of Virginia in Charlottesville as a first year academic honors student. She had entered college two years late because she had run away from her English boarding school as a teen to travel through Europe with her girlfriend in pursuit of their heroin addiction. Lately, however, she appeared to have settled down, as evidenced by her latest love interest: a male academic scholarship winner and honors student from Germany who, though 18, had no sexual, narcotic or criminal experience.

Though our relationship was only four months old, Elizabeth and I went to the funeral services in Lynchburg together, stayed at the houses of family friends and then returned to college. Meanwhile, the sheriff's department's investigation produced no arrests in spite of massive regional police cooperation and even the assistance of Canadian law enforcement. Forensic test results from the crime scene were slowly returning from the state labs, however, and these seemed to confirm the police's initial theory that they were looking for more than one attacker.

All four blood types were found in the Haysoms' cottage: along with vast quantities of the victims' A and AB, there was also a very small drop of type O blood on the floor on the master bedroom, between the living room and the blood-smeared bathroom, as well as a small drop of type B blood on a damp rag on top of the clothes in the half-open washer immediately next to Nancy Haysom's body in the kitchen.

[The rag's dampness suggests that it had been left there recently.]

Only much later would deputies learn that I have type O blood, as does 45% of the population, since it is the most common type. But because police obtained physical samples from Elizabeth soon after the crime, they knew very early in their investigation that she had type B blood, shared by only ten percent of the population. (Both the type O and B blood drops were too small to allow subtyping, and, according to state lab reports, the type O blood was destroyed in testing, making later DNA analysis impossible.

[After I confessed to committing the crime by myself, the prosecution understandably began to dispute its own expert's finding of Elizabeth's blood type at the crime scene.]

Not only were the authorities aware that Elizabeth's relatively rare blood type had been found near her mother's body, but they also retrieved her fingerprints from a vodka bottle in the front row of the Haysoms' living room liquor cabinet near her father's body. This location was potentially significant because both Derek and Nancy Haysom had blood alcohol levels of .22 when they died.

[Since these prints were at the very top and the very bottom of the bottle, with the middle wiped clean, their position may indicate an attempt to clean up the crime scene similar to the smearing of the bloody sock- and shoeprints, below.]

Interestingly, when scientists examined a used shot glass at the scene, they discovered Derek Haysom's prints next to another set that, in spite of very extensive testing of the victims' friends and acquaintances, police were never able to identify. Investigators would learn later that no fingerprints of mine were found at the Haysoms' residence.

From the bloody bathroom sink where the killers had clearly washed, scientists retrieved a human hair belonging to neither of the victims. Of course they compared it to a sample from my head at the earliest opportunity, but it did not belong to me, either. This hair was never compared to Elizabeth's, nor has its owner ever been found.

Most importantly and confusingly, three different types of bloody footprints were recovered from the crime scene. Outside the front door were smeared boot- or shoeprints significantly larger than any inside. Almost all the prints on the kitchen, dining room and living room floors had been wiped away in what must have been an extensive attempt to cover the killer's (or killers') tracks, but three very smeared impressions in the blood remained: two were sockprints corresponding to "a size 6.5 to 7.5 woman's shoe or a size 5 to 6 man's shoe," and the last one was a sneakerprint of a size that fit a "woman or small boy."(2) Elizabeth wore a size 8 to 8 1⁄2 woman's shoe, and the very first of her sample ink prints resembled the sockprints both in shape as well as in size; but so smeared and indistinct were the bloody crime scene prints that even one of her Canadian half-brothers could not be eliminated as its possible owner. Almost five years would pass before police learned that I wore a size 8.5 man's shoe, 2.5 to 3.5 sizes larger than the sockprints at the cottage.

In the summer of 1985, while cleaning the Haysoms' house with family and friends so that it could be sold, Elizabeth was observed removing her shoe and placing her foot over the prints on the bloody floor in the living room, as if to compare them.

Soon after classes resumed in the fall of 1985, Bedford County sheriff's deputies interviewed me about the mileage on the car Elizabeth and I had rented on the weekend of her parents' murders. Company records proved that the Chevrolet Chevette had not only been driven to Washington D.C. for a weekend of fun, as we claimed, but could easily have been driven from Washington to Lynchburg and back as well. I told police some feeble lies, stalled them on providing physical samples and soon afterwards fled the country with Elizabeth.

In a diary entry written by her and later recovered by investigators, she suggested that my fingerprints on a coffee mug I used during questioning might have given me away. Yet the same diary entry also stated that Elizabeth had undergone experimental laser brain surgery just before our departure, and that she had contacted a fictional IRA terrorist named Rover to obtain false passports. Surprisingly, Bedford County authorities issued no warrants for our arrest even after our flight.

After traveling around in the world in the false belief that we were being hotly pursued, Elizabeth and I were eventually arrested for check fraud in London, England, on April 30, 1986. Among our possessions British police found letters we had exchanged over the Christmas 1984-85 vacation shortly after we had fallen in love. Elizabeth wrote me, among other things, "My mother begins her sixth gin (I pray she'll use the poker on my cold, goading father). Would it be possible to hypnotize my parents, do voodoo on them, will them to death? . . . It seems my concentration on their deaths is causing them problems." I replied, "Voodoo is possible. . . . Love [is the] ultimate weapon [that could cause her parents] to lose their wits, get heart attacks, or become lovers in an agape kind of way of the rest of the world."(3) These letters led English police to contact Bedford County authorities in Virginia, who then traveled to London to question us.

A British judge ordered that Elizabeth and I could be interrogated by an American officer, with the help of two English detectives, from June 5 to 8, 1986. The first day's police station log entry for me, but not for Elizabeth, read that I was "to be held incommunicado," and I was indeed never allowed to talk to our attorney. (4) Although he came to the station repeatedly to see both of us, he was permitted to speak only with Elizabeth. I asked for a lawyer numerous times during the many hours of seven taped and untaped interrogations over four days, but the English detectives told me this was "impossible." (5) Although one of the British officers briefly relented on June 6 and promised "to get that attorney now," my lawyer was again denied contact when he came to the station shortly afterwards.(6) The next day's question and answer session consisted almost entirely of my asking my interrogators for legal advice about different points of police and court procedure. Finally, in two untaped interrogations on June 8, I confessed to killing Derek and Nancy Haysom by myself while Elizabeth remained in Washington D.C.

Later that night, Elizabeth gave a statement substantially corroborating my account.

Many elements of my statement matched details of the crime scene:

  • The Haysoms had indeed been drinking.
  • The struggle began in the dining room and then spread in two directions, to the living room in Derek Haysom's case and the kitchen in Nancy's.
  • The murder weapon was a knife.
  • Both victims suffered neck wounds and stab wounds to their bodies.
  • Some attempt was made to wipe away footprints in the blood.
  • I showed detectives two small scars on my fingers to explain the presence of type O blood at the crime scene.

However, other elements of my confession did not match the evidence at the cottage:

  • I claimed I sat to Derek Haysom's right at the dining room table, but police photographs show the second place setting to his left. This makes impossible my description of the beginning of the struggle, which revolved around having to step around Derek Haysom to leave but then being pushed by him against a wall to his right.
  • In a sketch I made for investigators, I drew Derek Haysom's body lying in the dining room with his legs protruding into the living room, whereas he was found entirely in the living room. I placed Nancy Haysom's body correctly in the kitchen, but in two different positions.
  • I told police that I threw away the murder weapon in a dumpster down the road from the Haysoms' cottage, but luminol testing revealed traces of blood on a single steak knife in the drawer of the dining room table where the struggle began. The knife had apparently been washed in the bloodstained kitchen sink and then "hidden in plain sight", perhaps like the vodka bottle. At my trial four years later, this steak knife was passed around the jury box while Elizabeth testifed that I had told her how I had used it on her parents. Another six years later, at a habeas corpus evidentiary hearing, the Chief Medical Examiner of North Carolina testified that this knife was inconsistent with the wounds found on the Haysoms' bodies.
  • I said Nancy Haysom wore jeans, but she was dressed in a flowered housecoat.

Finally, my confession contained several basic implausibilities:

  • I described in detail what Derek Haysom supposedly shouted at me after I had allegedly cut his throat.
  • I claimed to have killed two people by myself with a small knife in two different, widely separated rooms as part of one act.
  • In spite of supposedly eating with the Haysoms, killing them and then cleaning up the crime scene, I allegedly left no forensic evidence linking me directly to the cottage? except for one tiny drop of type O blood shared by nearly half the population.
  •  Both Elizabeth and I told detectives that our motive had been her parents' opposition to our relationship. Not only was there no independent corroboration for this claim, but most fathers and mothers would have considered me a refreshing change from the lesbians and drug addicts to whom their daughter had been attracted in the past. The prosecution made no attempt to provide another motive at trial.

Shortly after my lengthy unrecorded statements admitting to the crime, Elizabeth confessed to police on tape, "I did it myself. . . . I got off on it." The detectives refused to believe her, in spite of the forensic evidence supporting this admission, and she quickly claimed she was only "being facetious." (7)

When American law enforcement officials returned to Virginia, they indicted me for capital murder, which carried the death penalty, and Elizabeth for first degree murder. Only after this development was announced did an acquaintance of Derek and Nancy Haysom come forward to tell police that he had observed a bruise on my face and bandages on my hand while I stood next to Elizabeth's college roommate at her parents' funeral service. Although numerous other acquaintances, friends, relatives and even children of the Haysoms had spent much more time with me during those days than had this gentleman, not one of them could corroborate his allegation. Elizabeth's roommate was also unable to remember any injuries on me.

[At my trial I showed the jury the same scars on my fingers that I had displayed to police in England to flesh out my confession. One of them is clearly a wart or similar protuberance, and the other a triangular ridge most likely not caused by a knife blade.]

Toward the end of 1986, I repeated my confession to a German prosecutor to provide him with a legal basis for an extradition request from my own country. In Germany I could have been tried on the American murder charges without the threat of execution. Unfortunately, the British government did not cooperate with this humanitarian effort by the German government to save my life and instead gave preference to the American extradition request.

In 1987 Elizabeth returned to Virginia, pled guilty to first degree murder "as an accomplice before the fact" and was sentenced to ninety years in prison. At least for a while, her sentencing hearing appeared to reveal a more plausible motive than parental opposition to her affair with me: she claimed that her mother had sexually abused her. Nancy Haysom's best friend testified that Elizabeth's mother had indeed shown friends nude photographs she had taken of her daughter, but that these pictures had been part of her hobby of painting.

[In some of the many informal, unrecorded interrogations in London the year before, detectives had also asked me about these photos, which they had found at the Haysoms' cottage. I confirmed that Elizabeth had shown them to me during a visit we had made there several weeks before the murders, although she had not been willing or able to discuss details of her abuse with me.]

Sexual abuse could also explain an otherwise cryptic comment in a letter Elizabeth wrote me shortly after the murders: "I thought we did this so I could be free." (8) Free of what?

But in 1987 sexual abuse was still a subject not fit for public discussion in America; only during the early 1990s was this taboo finally broken. So, under cross-examination that in my opinion could be described as aggressive, Elizabeth withdrew her allegation in court. An alternative explanation for the claim of sexual abuse was presented when a psychiatrist testified that Elizabeth had a borderline personality disorder and was a pathological liar.

[Researchers have meanwhile established that many victims of abuse develop symptoms like a borderline personality disorder (formerly known as borderline psychosis), pathological lying, substance abuse and ambivalent sexuality.
I was, incidentally, quite aware of Elizabeth's penchant for exaggeration. Police recovered letters we had exchanged before the murders in which I gave her lies the humorously intended acronym "p.o.t.'s," meaning "perversions of truth." I saw this character trait as merely another expression of her exuberantly creative artistic genius, which sometimes slipped out of her control.]

One other possible motive for the murders, not necessarily incompatible with the one above, emerged during Elizabeth's sentencing hearing: she admitted stealing some of her mother's jewelry during a visit to her parents' home one week before the crime. At my trial three years later, my attorney suggested that Derek and Nancy Haysom discovered the theft and died during a subsequent confrontation over this matter. One police photograph of Elizabeth's bedroom, upstairs from the crime scene at the cottage, shows a dresser with one drawer pulled out and a necklace lying on the floor in front of it.

[It seems more likely that the drawer was opened and the necklace dropped there on the night of the murders as opposed to one week earlier, during Elizabeth's previous visit to her parents' house.]

Meanwhile, my extradition proceedings from England to Virginia lasted until 1990 because Bedford County authorities were unwilling to drop the death penalty charges against me. To its great credit, the German government joined my British lawyers as coplaintiffs before the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately condemned the so-called "death row phenomenon" in Virginia as inhumane. The Bedford County prosecutor reluctantly withdrew the capital murder indictment and, four and three quarters years after the crime and three and two thirds years after my arrest, I finally returned to America on New Year's Day, 1990.

2. The Trial

My trial was held in Bedford City, the small seat of a large, mostly rural county of the same name lying between southwestern Virginia's two main towns of Lynchburg and Roanoke. It is now home to the national D-Day Memorial because Bedford lost a greater percentage of its soldiers during the storming of the Normandy beaches than any other city in the U.S.: twenty-three out of thirty-five young men died fighting Nazi Germany that day, the equivalent of forty-five thousand fatal casualties from New York City. However, I did not notice any lingering anti-German resentment during my stay in the town's jail.

The Commonwealth of Virginia was represented by an eloquent orator who preferred dressing in all-white suits and boasted of one of the highest conviction rates in the entire state, especially in his many death penalty prosecutions, such as mine had very nearly been. My defense lawyer was a former prosecutor from Detroit whom my father had retained while posted at the German Consulate-General there in the late 1980s.

One of the first pre-trial hearings was a defense request for the town's only circuit judge to recuse himself because of his association with the victims' family. The judge admitted attending a retirement party for Derek and Nancy Haysom as well as knowing her brother for forty years, ever since their days as "rats" at the Virginia Military Institute. During pre-trial hearings and the trial itself, he repeatedly addressed the victim's brother in the gallery by his first name. And on the day the trial began, the local Albemarle Magazine published an article in which the judge expressed an opinion that I was guilty: "As far as the acts themselves, I don't think [Elizabeth] planned all that out. It was like double-dare-you. I think she was shocked he took the dare." Nevertheless, the judge ruled that he could be impartial, and under Virginia's laws only the trial judge himself decides the issue of his own bias.

Another pre-trial hearing concerned the defense's motion to change venue. Because of the unusual gruesomeness of the crime, the high social position of the victims, the family and international connections of the two suspects, and the nearly four-year-long, precedent-setting extradition battle, the Haysom murders had already received far more media coverage than any previous case in the history of southwestern Virginia. Even before my trial began, a "quickie" true crime book went on sale in which the author imaginatively described how I had committed the crime, not "allegedly." Television, radio and newspaper reporting had been uniformly hostile, especially when the European Court of Human Rights was perceived to interfere with my apparently inevitable execution. If American media did not quite accuse me of dancing naked in my victims' blood, as had one British national tabloid, they were not far behind.

Transferring the trial to northern Virginia, where few people had heard of the case, would have meant that the proceedings could not be televised, however. In 1990 Bedford County was one of only two Virginia circuit courts participating in a "cameras in the courtroom" experiment, and my trial was to be the first truly high-profile test of this new practice. So the judge denied the motion to change venue but granted a motion to change venire to Amherst County: jurors would be bused to Bedford. Unfortunately, Amherst County also bordered on Lynchburg and extended toward Charlottesville, thus exposing its residents to exactly the same prejudicial publicity that, in the judge's own opinion, would have biased Bedford County jurors.

In the end, fifteen of the thirty-eight members of the jury pool, an unusually high percentage, declared that they were unable to judge the case impartially. Those twelve jurors and two alternates who were eventually seated made the in my opinion not altogether comforting claim that they could lay aside their previously formed opinions on my guilt.

In a third pre-trial hearing the judge denied the defense's motion to suppress my confessions because I had not been allowed to speak to my lawyer during the interrogations in England. He ruled that I had initiated contact with police by asking to be interrogated, and he refused to believe my claim that this request resulted from a British detective's implicit threat in the holding cells to harm Elizabeth if I did not drop my demands for an attorney.

[My lawyer was not permitted to enter evidence that it was common practice until the early 1980s for English police to use coercive tactics during questioning of suspects. Only the infamous case of the Guildford Four, later made into the movie In the Name of the Father, finally forced British authorities to reform police procedure and release literally dozens of wrongly convicted inmates serving long sentences.
I think it is fair to say that any request by a suspect asking to be interrogated without his or her attorney should be viewed with suspicion. In this case, it is also worth noting that I did not actually confess to the murders until three days after I supposedly expressed a desire to discuss the case with detectives. Finally, it seems strange that only six minutes passed between my allegedly voluntary request at 7:59 p.m. and the beginning of questioning at 8:05 p.m.]

The final major pre-trial hearing focused on the status and testimony of the prosecution's new footprint witness. Since the original state crime lab reports clearly excluded me as a possible owner of the bloody sockprints at the cottage, they corresponded to "a size 5 to 6 man's shoe," while I had a size 8 1⁄2 foot, the Commonwealth's Attorney needed a new forensic expert to testify at my trial. Instead of choosing one of the many state or private experts on foot- and shoeprints, he selected a former FBI lab technician (not a scientist) who had specialized in car tire and belt impressions and only recently had done some consulting work on footprints for the police department of a Caribbean island.

The trial judge ruled that this witness could not be qualified as an expert witness but allowed him to take the stand as a lay witness. Normally, non-expert witnesses testifying about forensic samples merely identify the item in question without commenting on it, but at my trial the judge permitted the former FBI lab tech to describe his "credentials," to use scientific-sounding terms like "double hit" and "correspondences" to explain at great length the size difference, to make markings and point out features on an "overlay" he had created, and generally to "designat[e] this [sockprint] as his," meaning mine. "It matches and it fits like a glove," the prosecutor summarized this witness's testimony about the sockprints in his closing speech at trial. (9)

The top half of one of the sample footprints I gave police did indeed resemble the bloody crime scene sockprint strongly, and the large difference in length seemed to have been resolved by the nonexpert's "double hit" theory. On its own, the sockprint appeared quite damning.

When my actual trial began, the prosecutor and my defense attorney laid out the facts of the case much as I have done here, with three important omissions:

  • The jury never saw the sample ink footprint of Elizabeth's that, at least to the untrained eye, resembled the bloody sockprint at the cottage as closely as did mine. Instead, the prosecution's lay witness selected another of her samples which strongly differed, thus leading jurors to believe she could not have left the crime scene print. Especially in combination with the strong resemblance between my sample and the bloody sockprint, the non-expert's choice of comparison for Elizabeth made a very powerful impression on the jury, as we shall see. Oddly enough, it was the very first of her ink footprints that so closely matched the crime scene print, so the lay witness could hardly have missed the resemblance. Unfortunately, my own attorney did not compare the bloody sockprint to all of Elizabeth's sample footprints until after the trial.
  • My lawyer also did not call to the stand the state's original footprint expert, who had prepared the lab report before my arrest that found the sockprint corresponded to a man's size 5 to 6 shoe.
  • Neither prosecution nor defense brought up Elizabeth's allegations of sexual abuse at her sentencing hearing, nor did either side submit her mother's nude photographs of her as evidence at these proceedings. This possible motive was therefore never properly investigated and explored, much less presented to the jury for consideration.

Elizabeth's testimony against me at trial was one of the highlights of the prosecution, though it did not go quite as smoothly as anticipated. On the day before she was to take the stand, a Virginia attorney with whom my father had discussed the case years earlier sent the prosecutor a photocopy of some items my father had shown him: movie ticket stubs from Washington D.C. theaters, purchased on the night of the Haysoms' murders. At this point Elizabeth had already given approximately half a dozen different accounts of what she had or had not supposedly done in Washington while I allegedly killed her parents in Bedford County, the most recent of which quite definitely did not include a purchase of movie tickets. The timely arrival of these, in my opinion confidential, photocopies of the ticket stubs in the prosecutor's office allowed her to fashion a new version of events for trial: she now claimed to have attended the movies Witness at 1:00 p.m., Stranger than Paradise at 4:00 p.m. and The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight of March 30, 1986.

Under cross-examination my attorney confronted Elizabeth with the original movie ticket stubs, which my father had found in my college dorm room after our flight in the fall of 1985. The original stubs showed the movies' starting times clearly, whereas the photocopies sent to the prosecution the day before were too indistinct to be read. Contrary to Elizabeth's sworn testimony, the tickets were for the 5:05 p.m. showing of Witness, the 10:15 p.m. performance of Stranger than Paradise, and the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

[The tickets for Stranger than Paradise could not have been bought before 7:30 p.m. Since the drive from Washington to Bedford County took three and a half hours under the 55 m.p.h. speed limit of 1985, those ticket stubs did in fact provide an ironclad alibi for the purchaser, as the prosecution agreed.]

When I took the stand in my own defense, I gave the following testimony, which no trial or appellate court has accepted:

[On the afternoon of the murders, Elizabeth revealed to me that she needed to meet a drug dealer in Washington to perform a favor that would finally free her of her Charlottesville drug dealer, a fellow honors student. She asked me to purchase movie tickets as an "alibi" for her parents, in case her college drug dealer, whose parents also lived in Lynchburg and were acquainted with the Haysoms,threatened to tell her mother and father of her continuing drug abuse and her trip to Washington.
When Elizabeth returned many hours later than expected and told me she had killed her parents, she asked for my help to avoid execution. In shock, in love, in trouble already as the accomplice who had bought the alibi movie tickets, in full expectation of almost immediate arrest, in the false belief that my father's diplomatic status meant I would be tried in Germany as juvenile, subject to no more than ten years incarceration, in the grip of romantic ideals like Sidney Carton sacrificing his life for his love on the guillotine in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ("It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . .") . . . I volunteered to take the blame for Elizabeth's crime to save her from the electric chair. We spent the rest of the night arranging our lies on the model of Shakespeare's Macbeth and thereafter never discussed the events of March 30 again.]

I could produce only one piece of corroborative evidence for my account: on June 7, 1986, two days before I confessed, a British detective asked me, "Would you consider . . . pleading guilty to something you didn't do?" "I can see it happening, yes," I replied, adding that I believed such things happened "in real life."(10) The officer told me he disagreed and quickly changed subjects.

[All of the dozens of inmates released in England in the early 1990s were freed solely because their confessions were no longer considered "safe," and many of the inmates exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S. over the past decade also confessed falsely.]

On June 21, 1990, the twelve Amherst County jurors convicted me of two counts of first degree murder after only four hours of deliberations and recommended a sentence (later adopted by the trial judge) of two consecutive life terms. The jury was split six-six when it began considering my case, but, according to one panel member's statement to a Charlottesville newspaper (and later in affidavit form to my attorney), a closer examination of the bloody sockprint quickly convinced the twelve men and women of my guilt. "Had it not been for the sockprint and the testimony concerning it [by the prosecution's non-expert witness], I for one would have found it more difficult, if not impossible, to place him at the scene of the crime," the juror said. "If it had not been for that footprint, I would have found him innocent." (11)

3.The Appeal

The media circus surrounding my case reached a new level in the months following the verdict, with a two-hour documentary on regional prime time TV as well as segments on Larry King Live, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and Geraldo Rivera. The wife of one of the senior members of the law enforcement/prosecution team printed and distributed yellow T-shirts with the logo, "I Survived the Soering Trial, Local Yokel," many of which sheriff's deputies smuggled into the jail with requests for my autograph. ("Local Yokel" referred to a letter of mine that Elizabeth had turned over to police, in which I called Bedford County policemen "yokels"? something the prosecutor, perhaps understandably, would not let jurors forget.) I also received over three hundred letters of support from Roanoke, Bedford and Lynchburg residents, as well as two pieces of hate mail.

One of my correspondents showed considerable initiative and intelligence by visiting E. C. Glass High School in Lynchburg to examine graduating class yearbooks from the late 1940s. There she found photographs of my trial judge and Nancy Haysom's brother in several extracurricular clubs together and, at least apparently, arm-in-arm in a separate picture of their own. At the pre-trial hearing on recusal, of course, my judge had only admitted to knowing the victim's brother at the Virginia Military Institute.

My trial attorney, meanwhile, finally compared the crime scene sockprint to all of Elizabeth's sample ink footprints and discovered, as explained above, that the very first of her ink samples resembled the bloody impression from the cottage in shape as closely as did mine and in length much more closely.

Also, my lawyer at last examined the standard forensic textbook on foot- and shoeprint analysis and found in its pages the definitive study on sneakerprints made by shoes manufactured in the 1980s. According to this study's fully credentialed expert author, the sneakerprint at the Haysom cottage corresponded to a size 71⁄2 or smaller man's shoe, whereas I wore a size 81⁄2. This scientist later provided an affidavit to my new appellate attorney during subsequent habeas corpus proceedings.

Both the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of Virginia denied my trial lawyer's direct appeals. Then, in 1995, I filed charges against him before the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board, which eventually found him guilty of:

  •  failing to competently handle my appeal; and
  •  misappropriating $5,000 of my funds, lying about witnesses, and creating phony affidavits;
  •  refusing to turn over files to me once I decided to drop him as my lawyer.

In his defense, my trial attorney wrote that his "ability to practice law was materially impaired by an emotional or mental disability" from January, 1989, to November, 1992, a period encompassing

my entire trial and both direct appeals. The board suspended his license but, to his considerable credit, my former lawyer continued to maintain my innocence in newspaper interviews even after these proceedings.

The lives and careers of other major figures in my case also took sometimes strange turns in the years following my trial. Shortly after his retirement, Bedford's sheriff was sued by the county for allegedly misappropriating department funds to buy himself a pickup truck; this suit was settled out of court with a repayment of the monies in question. All of the policemen were promoted except for the chief detective, who left the sheriff's department after an investigation into his conduct at a capital murder crime scene. Using a videotape of his cross-examination of me, my prosecutor sought but failed to obtain his party's nomination for the 1993 election of the state's Attorney General; he has meanwhile taken over the seat of my trial judge, who retired. And finally, Elizabeth went up for an unusually early parole hearing with public praise from the prosecutor for helping to convict me, but she was not released because,so I am told, friends and members of her family wrote the parole board that they believed she had physically been present at the murders.

In 1995 a new lawyer took over my habeas corpus proceedings: a former Deputy Attorney General of Virginia, now a University of Virginia law professor, who represented me first at a reduced rate and later without charge, because she believes in my innocence. One of the first things she did was to obtain affidavits by a retired Special Agent from the FBI's Crime Lab and a retired New Jersey state police forensic scientist specializing in finger- and footprints, both of whom found that the bloody sockprint at the crime scene had more likely been left by Elizabeth than by me. According to these genuine experts, the prosecution's non-expert's testimony about "correspondences" and "double hits" was "quite misleading." The smeared print at the cottage was of such poor quality that it "provides no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Soering was at the scene of crime. . . . I can state that the crime scene print matches in size only with Ms. Haysom's print. . . . There too, however, the evidence does not prove 100 percent that the blood impression print on the floor belonged to Ms. Haysom." (12)

The state never contested these scientists' findings during the lengthy subsequent appellate proceedings and eventually even admitted in its own legal briefs that the bloody sockprints "could not be sized with precision."(13) This newest and latest position by the state directly contradicted the original and offical 1985 state lab report ("size 5 to 6"), the prosecutor's claim at trial ("fits like a glove" on my 8.5 feet) and at least one juror's opinion immediately after the verdict ("If it had not been for that footprint, I would have found him innocent.").

In 1996 a former Bedford County sheriff's deputy told my appellate lawyer that, only a few days after the Haysom homicides, he had stopped and searched two drifters on a highway near the victims' residence. While frisking one of the men, the deputy locked the other in the back of his patrol car, where the vagrant apparently hid a Buck 110 knife,which the deputy still had and now gave to my attorney! The men told him they had gone to Lynchburg "to see a girl," and since they were not otherwise suspicious, he released them. Only a few days later they murdered a man in the next town, Roanoke, by stabbing him twenty-six times in the body and throat and cutting off his penis, a crime for which they were now both serving life sentences.

As soon as he heard of the two men's arrest for murder in 1985, the deputy repeatedly urged his superiors to investigate the drifters more closely as suspects in the Haysom homicides, but his suggestions were ignored. And five years later, in the months before my trial, the prosecution also neglected to inform the defense of this potentially exculpatory evidence. Now, after another six years had passed, the Virginia Supreme Court granted my lawyer an evidentiary hearing to examine this matter and sent the case . . . straight back to my original trial judge, whose lack of complete candor about his relationship with the victim's family had been one of the main points of the last six years of legal appeals!

At this hearing the state's own expert confirmed that the two vagrants' Buck 110 knife could have inflicted the Haysoms' slash and stab wounds, and that the Haysom homicides and the third murder in Roanoke revealed a similar modus operandi. But after eleven years in a drawer in the deputy's home, the knife no longer carried any detectable traces of blood, nor did the two drifters' fingerprints match any of the still-unidentified crime scene prints. Still, a past president of the Richmond Bar Association, accepted as an expert in law by both sides, testified that this evidence created so much doubt that it would have led to a different verdict, had it not been suppressed by the prosecution.

Although Virginia's laws normally made such uncontested expert opinion binding on the fact finder, my trial and now appellate judge nevertheless refused to overturn my conviction. Later a federal district court ruled that I would have been convicted even if the jury had heard about the two drifters who had been "to see a girl" in Lynchburg and only days later stabbed another victim over twenty times.

(The same expert in law who testified at the above evidentiary hearing had earlier studied the entire three-week trial transcript as well as the direct appeals and concluded, as an entirely separate matter, that I would not have been convicted but for the unconstitutionally inadequate representation of my trial attorney, especially in regard to the foot- and shoeprint evidence. No appellate court showed any interest in this finding by a recognized expert in criminal defense advocacy, even though his professional judgement in other cases has meanwhile earned him promotion to a federal magistrateship.)

In 1996 the Charlottesville Daily Progress, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Roanoke Times and the smaller Charlottesville C'ville Weekly published major front-page articles implicitly questioning my conviction. The first of these articles, "Trial and Error?" by Ian Zack, eventually won a statewide prize for investigative journalism. That year and the next, German TV and major newspapers also carried stories sympathetic to my defense.

But in January 2001, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari to my appellate lawyer's final petition for writ of habeas corpus; without further comment, the court refused to hear my case. This decision concluded all legal appeals and effectively ended any hopes of my ever being released. (14)

4. Questions, No Answers, One Solution

Now that the strictly factual presentation of my case is complete, let me add by way of commentary that I did not murder Derek and Nancy Haysom, either by myself or with one or more other person(s). I was not in the state of Virginia at the time of the crime, and I did not even know about it until afterward. While I am certainly not completely innocent either legally or especially morally, I am also quite definitely not guilty of the crime of which I was convicted.

Since my story evokes the same standard reactions from virtually everyone who has read or otherwise heard about it, I have put together a series of questions and answers that will, I hope, address any issues left unresolved in the preceding three chapters.

This can't be true; what aren't you telling me? Unfortunately, the above account of my case is indeed true and as balanced and complete as I can make it. I left out no piece of prosecution evidence or testimony of which I am aware; there is simply so little of it that, according to several lawyers, I could not even have been indicted, much less convicted, without my so-called confessions. On the other hand, I have left out several pieces of evidence helpful to my defense because of lack of space and relative unimportance.

My story is not so unusual or, compared with many other inmates', even particularly egregious or tragic. Certainly during my extradition and habeas corpus proceedings, I had the best lawyers anyone could wish, and I did not end on death row. Nor should one forget that I voluntarily involved myself in a gruesome double murder instead of phoning the police on the night of the crime.

That miscarriages of justice occur even in America's vaunted judicial system is simply a consequence of humankind's fallible nature. At the time of this writing over two million people are in prison in this country; if the court system's error rate were as unbelievably and indeed impossibly low as one half of one percent, that would still leave ten thousand innocent people behind bars. And since the pressure to convict increases exponentially the more heinous and high profile a particular case is, one is more likely to find those ten thousand "mistakes" serving life sentences or awaiting execution. Any war, including the "war on crime," inevitably produces collateral damage and "friendly fire" casualties.

Why didn't the federal courts order a new trial after the state admitted that the bloody sockprints "could not be sized with precision"? No court has ever considered the evidentiary and exculpatory weight of the sockprints or shoeprints by themselves because America's legal system provides no avenue for doing so. The only context in which the foot- and sneakerprints were ever discussed was on the question of whether my trial lawyer's failure to properly research and present this evidence rose to the level of unconstitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, and that is a very different matter indeed. Practically no appellant is granted a new trial based on his or her attorney's decision not to call forensic experts to testify for the defense, because appeal courts are required by law to defer to the lawyer's judgment on the most appropriate trial strategy? even when the attorney is suffering from an "emotional or mental disability." Virginia has the additional legal hurdle of its infamous "twenty-one day rule," forbidding the introduction of newly discovered evidence on appeal if it comes to light more than twentyone days after sentencing.

But haven't you proved your innocence? No. All I can prove, by means of the bloody sneakerprint at the crime scene, is that my socalled confession, and therefore the whole basis of the prosecution's case, definitely cannot be true: someone other than myself, someone wearing a smaller tennis shoe than mine, was at the Haysoms' cottage on the night of March 30, 1985. But theoretically I could have been there with that person, though that hypothesis would require a third member of a conspiracy to have purchased the movie tickets in Washington D.C. (You will recall that the prosecution conceded that those tickets provide an alibi for whoever bought them.) Unlike feet, which are flexible, the soles of shoes do not stretch but produce the same print every time, so the sneakerprints provide comparatively "hard," uncontroversial and essentially incontrovertible evidence that the murders could not have been committed as I initially claimed during interrogation.

The "new" facts surrounding the sockprints that emerged after my trial merely destroyed the one piece of evidence that, according to the jury, convicted me. But that does not positively prove my innocence, of course. Although one of the defense's two recognized experts concluded that my foot is too long to have created the bloody sock impression at the crime scene, this print is so smeared that I really do think it is fairer and safer to say that it "could not be sized with precision."

I have no idea whether the two drifters with the knife were involved in Derek and Nancy Haysom's murders, nor am I able to perform the appellate judges' feat of retroactively reading jurors' minds to know if this information would have led to a different verdict. Again, all this proves nothing but only raises doubts. Would an impartial judge, a mentally competent defense attorney and a jury unprejudiced by five years of intensive prior media exposure have provided me with a fairer trial? Of course. But these factors have no direct bearing on the question of my guilt or innocence in the murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom.

It is worth noting, too, that I bear some responsibility for their deaths: there is no doubt in my mind that I could have prevented the Haysoms' murders by obtaining professional help for Elizabeth much earlier. Thus I do not claim to be, nor do I consider myself "innocent," except perhaps in the restricted sense of  being not guilty of the crime of which I was convicted.

Isn't there anything I can do to help? No. In any case, I did not write this book to solicit your or anyone else's help, but to help others in "prisons" of their own to find meaning in their suffering through contemplative spiritual practices. My death,for that is what a double life sentence means, in effect, would be a pointless waste if my experiences could not be put to use by people like you in bearing your cross. So, if you want to "help" me, you might drop me a note to let me know, not whether you enjoyed this book (that would merely be a temporary reaction by the emotional and possibly intellectual component of your self), but whether your Centering Prayer is slowly bringing you into direct contact with the Silence within. (15)

Since you've served seventeen years in prison already (at the time of this writing), won't you be released on parole soon? I become eligible for parole consideration in 2003, after seventeen years of incarceration. However, in 1995 Virginia abolished parole for all new incoming inmates and is now in effect applying the same policy retroactively to several thousand prisoners still serving sentences imposed under the old, pre-parole-abolition law. Since parole is purely discretionary, this procedure is not only legal but also very popular with voters. Thus I can expect never to leave prison.

Should parole ever be reinstated in Virginia, I still cannot be freed because the primary criterion for release has always been the inmate's willingness to accept responsibility for his or her crime? in my case, for a crime I did not commit. The "smart" course of action under these circumstances would be for me to keep my mouth shut, serve another ten to fifteen years behind bars, and then hope to convince some young parole board interviewer that I did indeed murder Derek and Nancy Haysom and now feel heartily sorry for "my" misdeeds. But while I deeply regret my illegal and immoral acts and omissions, as well as the terrible suffering I needlessly inflicted on the Haysom and Soering families, I refuse to "plead . . . guilty to something [I] didn't do" one more time.

Thus The Way of the Prisoner comes very close to being a suicide note, since its publication and the resulting public controversy very effectively nails shut a prison door that in my case was never very likely to open anyway. I follow this path, this Way, because I believe it is what Christ's example calls me to do. If this volume is true and Centering Prayer does indeed lead to Centering Practice, from contemplation of God's Presence within to truly self-giving service, then I must sacrifice my small remaining hope of freedom and parole for the greater good of passing on my insights to readers who may benefit from contemplative spiritual practices.

This is what I meant by the "logic of the cross" in the meditatio section of Book I. To empty the self completely means giving all of it away, even one's life, and following Jesus not only in words or prayers, but in deeds and in death. Only by "sharing in [Christ's] sufferings, becoming like him in his death," can we come "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection," so he can "transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Philippians 3:10, 21).

Such scriptural ideas and ideals are not mere theory for me, but a living and breathing and dying reality. The fact that you are holding this volume in your hands right now proves my sincerity; its physical existence draws unwelcome attention to the more unappetizing aspects of the criminal justice system and thus has almost certainly sealed my fate with a possible future parole board. (Incidentally, I also fully expect to be transferred to a much harsher prison for making such a nuisance of myself.) My great hope is that your being able to touch the courage of my convictions, in the form of these printed pages, will persuade you to try Centering Prayer and Centering Practice yourself as you struggle with your cross. If I, a convict serving double life sentences, can be transformed, then surely, surely so can you!

Of course I do not want to die behind bars; my cross hurts terribly and, like Christ and any Christian, I would much rather for this cup to pass me by. I dream of being paroled and living again in Germany, of meditating among adepts in a mountain monastery, even of working as a janitor in one of Germany's great medieval cathedrals, since prison life has made me a master of the mop and toilet brush. But the essence of kenosis is letting go, even of modest dreams like that one, and I have already done so, for you. Now go and do likewise. Go and do likewise.

Notes

  1. Available at www.jenssoering.com
  2. State lab or sheriff's department's reports, available from trial court file and in appendix to petition for writ of habeas corpus in Soering v. Deeds.
  3. Letters, read into trial transcript and appended to petition for writ of habeas corpus. At trial, the prosecution also made much of a reference to my having "the dinner scene all planned out." However, police found the dinner dishes stacked away in the dishwasher; the Haysoms died during a late-night snack of ice cream, not during dinner. Another letter of mine contains the line, "I have yet to kill, possibly the ultimate act of crushing." But this letter does not refer to the Haysoms in any way. Instead, it was my reaction to a TV documentary on the Holocaust and George Orwell's 1984; I questioned whether even I could have succumbed to the temptation of totalitarian violence.
  4. Police station log, read into trial transcript and appended to petition op. cit.
  5. Transcript of June 6, 1986, interrogation, read into trial transcript and appended to petition op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Letter, read into trial transcript and appended to petition op. cit.
  9. Prosecutor's closing comment, trial transcript.
  10. Interrogation of June 7, 1986, read into trial transcript and appended to petition op. cit.
  11. Newspaper reports and affidavit in Soering v. Deeds.
  12. Expert affidavits filed with petition for writ of habeas corpus in Soering v. Deeds.
  13. Commonwealth's brief in Soering v. Deeds, March 10, 1997.
  14. After completing The Way of the Prisoner, I filed a new petition for writ of habeas corpus, based on an arcane legal theory with only a minimal possibility of success. I am acting as my own lawyer in this proceeding, further reducing my chances.
  15. Please have a look at my contact page.
    About

    Jens Soering is a German author who spent more than 33 years in American and British prisons for a double-murder he did not commit.

    In 2016 DNA tests revealed that blood at the crime scene, which had once been attributed to him, actually belonged to two other men.

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