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Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom, convicted in sensational 1985 double murders, released by Virginia

(by Laura Vozzella, The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2019, Link)

RICHMOND — Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom, onetime classmates and lovers at the University of Virginia convicted decades ago in her parents’ brutal killing, have won release from prison.

The surprise decision Monday by the Virginia Parole Board slapped a coda on a 1985 murder mystery that rocked the state and drew national attention, long before tabloid television turned sensational crimes into regular fare.

Soering and Haysom will be turned over to federal immigration authorities. Soering, a German diplomat’s son, will be deported to his native Germany. And Haysom, a Canadian citizen, will be deported there.

“She will be a free bird, and that’s wonderful,” said Phyllis Workman, a third cousin to Haysom who often visited her in prison. “She has earned it. She’s been a model prisoner, and so has Jens. So it’s just time. The Lord’s working. The Lord is good.”

The office of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) confirmed the decision in a statement that noted he had rejected Soering’s request for an absolute pardon but respects the board’s decision to release the pair.

“The Governor was . . . made aware that the Parole Board voted to release Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to ICE, after which they will be permanently removed from the United States and unable to return,” Northam’s office wrote. “Governor Northam respects the Parole Board’s expertise and appreciates their work on this and all other cases.”

Steve Rosenfield, a Charlottesville lawyer who has represented Soering pro bono for years, said he had yet to talk with Soering and had no details.

Soering and Haysom were fellow U-Va. honors students and an unlikely campus couple — she a sophisticated beauty with a history of drug use, he a nerd in enormous glasses — when her parents were murdered in 1985.

Derek Haysom, 72, a retired Canadian steel executive, and his socialite-artist wife, Nancy, 53, a relative of Lady Astor, were found stabbed and nearly decapitated at their home in central Virginia. Soering, then 18, and Haysom, 20, were not initially considered suspects but fled the country months later as investigators started closing in.

They were eventually arrested in London, and Soering confessed, saying he killed the couple while Haysom waited for him at a hotel in Georgetown. He later recanted, saying he was the one in the hotel room while Haysom committed the murder. He said his initial confession was an effort to protect Haysom from the electric chair under the mistaken belief that he had diplomatic immunity because of his father’s position. He was convicted in a sensational 1990 trial that drew international media and gavel-to-gavel coverage on local cable television.

Haysom, now 55, pleaded guilty to being an accessory before the fact, contending that she helped plan the murders but did not physically take part. She has been serving a 90-year sentence at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women near Charlottesville. She has maintained over the years that Soering alone did the killing.

Soering, now 53 and confined at Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., has been serving two life sentences. He won attention and believers over the years for writing a string of well-received books on his case, his conversion to Catholicism and prison reform. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, actor Martin Sheen and Richmond’s Catholic bishop pushed for his release.

His supporters have long raised questions about the case that were never broached by his original lawyer, who was later disbarred and acknowledged suffering from a mental impairment during the trial.

They noted that Soering got some details of the crime scene wrong in his confession, including the location of the bodies and the clothing worn by Nancy Haysom. And Elizabeth Haysom’s account — she said that Soering drove away from the murders wearing a blood-soaked sheet and that she cleaned the car with Coca-Cola — did not square with the rental car returned in sparkling condition. Finally, there was a bloody shoe print the size of a woman’s shoe, but prosecutors focused instead on a bloody sock print — evidence that Soering’s defenders dismiss as “junk” science.

He was close to release once, in 2009. At the urging of the German Embassy and Richmond’s Catholic bishop, Walter Sullivan, then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) approved Soering’s transfer to a German prison, where he could have been released after two years. But there was an uproar, and Kaine’s successor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), nixed the plan.

Support for Soering picked up new steam in 2016 with the release of a German documentary, “The Promise,” that suggested that Haysom committed the murders, perhaps with help from a drug dealer or two. It said Haysom’s motivation was sexual abuse by her mother.

Also that year, new analysis indicated that a man other than Soering was the source of the type O blood found at the Haysoms’ home. The blood was the only physical evidence that purported to tie Soering to the scene, aside from the disputed sock print.

The DNA finding prompted more people to review the case and ask then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to pardon Soering. Among them were Chuck Reid, a former Bedford County sheriff’s deputy originally assigned to the case; Mary Kelly Tate, founding director of the University of Richmond’s Institute for Actual Innocence; Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding; and retired deputy Richard Hudson.

Harding and Hudson devoted thousands of hours to reinvestigating the case, tracking down the pair’s former roommates and friends.

In the end, the Parole Board did not recommend a pardon, saying in a statement that it found Soering’s claims of innocence to be “without merit.” But it did recommend parole, an option for offenders deemed unlikely to pose a threat to society. The board rejected parole for Soering and Haysom many times over the years, although both were described as model prisoners.

The board determined that releasing Soering and Haysom was “appropriate based on their youth at the time of the offenses, institutional adjustment and their length of incarceration.”

“More than TEN years after the DNA evidence in September 2009, TEN years after Tim Kaine’s repatriation effort in January 2010, exactly THIRTY years after the Berlin Wall came down … Jens’ walls come down FINALLY!!!” Bernadette Faber, one of Soering’s most loyal supporters in Germany, wrote to friends.

Haysom had recently written to Workman, her cousin, to say she and Soering might be released, but the decision still floored the inmate, Workman said. “She said she was just stunned,” Workman said minutes after receiving a call from Haysom. “She’s sort of in a state of shock.”

She said Haysom “already has a place to go and, of course, she is very employable, probably translating Braille,” a skill she learned in prison.

“And she’ll be great,” Workman said. “She’ll be great for society.”

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