No Hope for Jens Soering
Prisoner's story shows how to survive
(by Bill Sizemore, The Virginian-Pilot , February 18, 2007, Link)
LAWRENCEVILLE - In some ways, prisoner No. 179212 is like so many others here at Brunswick Correctional Center.
For one thing, he insists he didn't do it. For another, he's desperate to get out.
But in other ways, Jens Soering stands apart from most of the Virginia prison system's 31,000 inmates. And not just because he is serving a double life sentence for a pair of grisly murders.
He has attracted dozens of influential supporters - including the German ambassador to the United States and the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. They and others hail him as an up-and-coming theologian and prison reformer.
Soering has written four books chronicling his spiritual odyssey and telling harrowing tales of life behind bars. He is featured in two documentaries now in the works and was the subject of a profile in a major German newspaper last month. A German television network is preparing a program on his story.
Soering, 40, has spent more than half his life in prison. Sometimes the prospect of all those months and years stretching ahead has made him feel like doing to himself what he was convicted of doing to a prominent Lynchburg couple one night in March 1985.
The sensational case had all the elements - money, privilege, obsessive love, gruesome violence and an international flight from the authorities. It made Soering the biggest news that part of Virginia had seen in ages. He was Geraldo material, a true-crime heavyweight. He was 24-hour cable gabfest fodder before there were 24-hour gabfests.
To understand what Soering has become, you have to start back in the fall of 1984. It was then, on the campus of the University of Virginia, that a brilliant but nerdy mop-haired kid with oversized glasses and a German accent became mesmerized by an older girl.
Elizabeth Haysom was cool and sophisticated and worldly - in short, everything Jens Soering was not.
The oldest child of a German diplomat, Soering had spent his teen years at an exclusive private school in Atlanta, where his father worked in the German consulate.
His senior year, he edited the high school newspaper and was named best English student - even though his native language is German.
He was one of 12 students to enter U.Va. in the fall of 1984 on a Jefferson Scholarship - a prestigious four-year ride awarded for academic achievement.
His social development, however, lagged far behind his intellectual ability.
"Nobody wanted to go out with me in high school - nobody," Soering said in a recent prison interview. "I had to struggle to get a prom date."
Soering speaks with quiet intensity. Only the faintest hint of his accent remains. He still looks youthful, but his body is sinewy from years of working out in prison gyms.
During orientation he met Haysom, daughter of a retired Canadian industrialist. Within a few months, the pair were lovers.
Two years older, Haysom charmed Soering with her bohemian good looks, refined British accent and tales of a tempestuous past. As a teenager, she told him, she became addicted to heroin, ran away from an exclusive English boarding school and traipsed through Europe on a months-long fling with a lesbian lover.
It was heady stuff for the bookish, virginal Soering.
"She was the kind of girl your mother really didn't want you to date," he said. "That little whiff of danger was attractive."
What happened one weekend in March 1985 depends on who's telling the story - and when.
Since 1990, Soering has told this account:
During a getaway to Washington, D.C., Haysom confessed to him that she had been unable to kick her drug habit and had run up a debt with her dealer. To pay it off, she had agreed to carry a shipment of drugs from Washington to Charlottesville. In case word ever got back to her parents, she asked Soering to establish an alibi by attending movies in her absence, buying two tickets each time and keeping the stubs.
Some 10 hours later, around 2 a.m., Soering says, Haysom showed up at their hotel room, ashen-faced.
"She kept saying four things over and over: 'I've killed my parents. The drugs made me do it. They deserved it anyway. You've got to help me avoid the electric chair.' "
Soering says he then made the biggest mistake of his life. Believing - wrongly - that his father's diplomatic status would shield him from prosecution, he agreed to confess to the murders if it became necessary to save his lover's life.
"A knight in shining armor, sacrificing myself for her. That's how I saw myself," he said.
Haysom declined to be interviewed for this story. In police interrogations and trial testimony, she told varying accounts of that weekend. But on one crucial point, her story is just the opposite of Soering's: It was he who drove to Lynchburg and murdered Derek and Nancy Haysom while she stayed behind in Washington.
Whoever did it, the crime shook Lynchburg to its roots because of its brutality - the Haysoms were slashed and stabbed repeatedly and nearly decapitated - and the victims' prominence. Nancy Haysom came from an old Virginia family and was a distant relation of Lady Astor, the famed socialite who became the first female member of the British House of Commons.
That fall, as investigators closed in, the pair fled to Europe. Soering later wrote about their six months on the lam in an online autobiography, "Mortal Thoughts." They created fake IDs, wrecked a rental car in Yugoslavia, stayed in a hostel in Bangkok, and touched down in Singapore, Bombay and Moscow before settling in London, where they were arrested in April 1986 for check fraud.
When British police searched their flat, the pair's penchant for the written word came back to haunt them. There were reams of writings, some of which raised the officers' suspicions. A diary contained references to wiping off fingerprints and being interviewed by detectives.
In 16 hours of interrogations over four days, with no lawyer present, Soering reluctantly confessed to the murders.
Haysom, too, confessed briefly, then recanted. From then on, she stuck with Soering's account.
Examining the pair in custody, two English psychiatrists diagnosed Haysom as a borderline schizophrenic and pathological liar. Soering was found to be a sufferer of folie a deux (literally "a madness shared by two"), a rare syndrome in which psychotic symptoms are transmitted from one person to another in a close relationship.
One of the doctors wrote: "Miss Haysom had a stupefying and mesmeric effect on Soering which led to an abnormal psychological state in which he became unable to think rationally."
In 1987, Haysom waived extradition and returned to Virginia, where she pleaded guilty as an accessory to murder and was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
At her sentencing hearing, questions still abounded about what really happened on the night of the slayings. Her half-brother Howard Haysom, a Houston doctor, testified:
"I think that she has lied to me in the past and, frankly, continues to lie.... I think Elizabeth was in the house at the time of the crime."
The state's theory of the case said otherwise: that Haysom planted the idea of murder, then stayed behind while Soering carried it out.
Soering fought extradition for three years before being returned to Virginia in 1990 to face trial - an event that became a media sensation.
When the jury delivered the guilty verdict and the judge asked if he had anything to say, Soering protested: "I'm innocent." That night, he wrote later, he tied a plastic bag over his head in a halfhearted attempt at suicide.
Then began 10 years of appeals on a variety of grounds - ineffective counsel, for one. Soering's lead trial attorney, Richard Neaton, admitted in bar disciplinary proceedings that his "ability to practice law was materially impaired by an emotional or mental disability" during the time he represented Soering. Neaton was disbarred in 2001.
His appeals exhausted, Soering is technically eligible for parole because his conviction occurred before Virginia abolished it in 1995. But even he acknowledges that parole is unlikely.
At a hearing in August, the parole board member assigned to the case slept through much of the testimony. When Soering's supporters protested, the board apologized, held a second hearing, and denied parole.
Within two weeks of the Supreme Court's rejection of his final appeal in 2001, Soering began work on what became the first of four books he has written behind bars.
That first book, "The Way of the Prisoner," and its successors present a grim picture of prison life - a Darwinian struggle for survival where the strong prey on the weak.
Sexual assault is common and widely ignored by guards, he says. One of the first sights he saw on entering the Virginia prison system, he wrote, was the rape of a young man by his cellmate as a dozen other inmates stood by, cheering and applauding.
When he reached Mecklenburg Correctional Center in the summer of 1991, Soering was just turning 25. "I was nothing more than another 'fresh fish,' " he wrote, "a pudgy guppy among highly experienced and hungry sharks."
He tells of mentally ill inmates who earn cigarette money by performing sex acts in portable toilets in the exercise yard, dubbed the "love shack" by inmates. One such inmate once tried to castrate himself with an old razor blade.
Soering was moved to the Brunswick compound, halfway between Emporia and South Hill, in 2000. One day in April 2004, Soering wrote, he returned to his cell after breakfast to discover that his cellmate, "Keith" (not his real name), had hanged himself with a rope made of shoestrings, tied to Soering's top bunk railing.
"What many of the rest of us have been asking ourselves," he wrote, "is why we are not following Keith's way of making parole."
Soering says he had suicidal thoughts constantly for 14 years until his spiritual renewal, and used to keep 200 to 300 aspirin tablets in a Metamucil jar that traveled with him to three different prisons, ready to be used for an overdose.
Ultimately, he says, he concluded that he had three options: "Commit suicide, join the prison culture - with the drugs, violence and homosexuality - or do something positive."
Something positive he could do, he decided, was write books. The result is an unusual inside glimpse by an articulate observer into a world that is foreign to most Americans.
Soering's second book, "An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse," is a call for sweeping prison reform. He argues that hundreds of thousands of inmates - including the elderly, the mentally ill and nonviolent drug offenders - should not be behind bars because it is unnecessary, expensive and often counterproductive.
He renews that theme in his fourth book, "The Church of the Second Chance," due out this summer.
Sales of his books have been modest, and he says earnings have been barely enough to cover the cost of getting the manuscripts typed. A state law allowing seizure of profits from convicts' books has not been invoked in his case.
His only other source of income is a job in the prison gym, where he cleans toilets and runs a fitness program for older inmates.
Soering's newest book contains an account of his six weeks in segregation - "the hole," inmates call it - in the fall of 2004. Inmates in segregation are kept in their cells except for three showers and three one-hour exercise periods per week. Though it is normally used as punishment for disciplinary infractions, Soering was never charged with any misconduct and says he was never told why he was placed in segregation. The Department of Corrections had no comment on his account.
While in "the hole," Soering says, he saw a wide range of aberrant behavior among segregated inmates: drumming on their sinks all night, exposing themselves to nurses making their morning rounds, gouging chunks of flesh out of their forearms with sharpened pieces of plastic, smearing the walls of their cells with feces.
Toward the end of his time in segregation, Soering was part of a tableau unique in the annals of the Virginia prison system. Shackled hand and foot, standing in front of a phalanx of guards, he received Communion from Bishop Sullivan.
"I wish I'd had a camera," said Sullivan, who wrote the foreword to Soering's third book, "The Convict Christ."
"He's a very intelligent man, and he writes well," Sullivan said.
Does he believe Soering's claim of innocence?
"Yes, because I find him believable on all other things."
The day after Sullivan's visit, Soering was released from segregation.
Interlaced with his accounts of prison life, Soering's books trace his spiritual journey from agnosticism to Buddhism to Christianity. At times they become dense theological treatises, drawing on the works of Christian thinkers like Martin Luther, St. Augustine, John Calvin and St. Thomas Aquinas.
"I spent six or seven years reading theology books," Soering said. "Finally that stopped working for me. Then I discovered Centering Prayer. It helped me deal with the reality of my situation."
The meditative technique, which he traces back to ancient Christian mystics, has helped him survive prison by revealing "the purifying and spiritualizing effects of my suffering," he wrote.
He sits quietly in his cell, wearing earplugs to muffle the cacophony of prison life.
Breathing deeply and deliberately, he silently chants a single word - "Jesus" - over and over and over again. His aim is to reach a stiller level of consciousness and, ultimately, to dissolve his conscious self and experience the presence of God.
He has been doing this three times a day for six years - picking a word, any word, and repeating it for 40 minutes. He says it has saved him from near-certain suicide.
At times, he wrote, he has "felt or seen God as a warm, golden-green, glowing light."
Central to his mission as a follower of Christ, Soering wrote, was "the voluntary acceptance of specifically undeserved suffering" - a reference to his continued insistence that he is innocent of murder. With no hope of overturning his conviction in court, he has petitioned the governor for clemency.
Among those who believe his claim is his appeals attorney, Gail Starling Marshall, a former deputy state attorney general. In a 2003 letter to the parole board, Marshall wrote that there had been only two occasions in her 35 years of practice when she became convinced "to a moral certainty" that a convicted person was innocent.
One was Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded farmhand whose conviction in a Culpeper rape-murder was overturned by new DNA evidence. The other was Jens Soering.
"I think his story - that he really thought he was going to be Elizabeth's romantic savior because he was so damn smart - is very believable," Marshall said. "He was very, very smart - too smart for his britches, as my mother used to say."
Unlike the Washington case, however, there is apparently no possibility of a DNA-based exoneration for Soering. His conviction was based largely on his confession and Haysom's testimony.
There were no eyewitnesses. No murder weapon was recovered. Of the two prime suspects, only Haysom's fingerprints - not Soering's - were found at the scene.
Interviews with jurors after the verdict indicated that the jury was closely divided and was swayed in the end by a smeared, bloody, sock-covered footprint recovered from the house. A state forensic witness laid a transparent overlay of Soering's footprint over it, indicating a similarity. It was the first Virginia case in which such evidence had been admitted.
"It fits like a glove," the prosecutor said in his closing argument.
In subsequent appeals, however, the state conceded that the footprints "could not be sized with precision," and attorney Marshall secured affidavits from two experts who called the state's footprint evidence misleading. One labeled it "completely worthless" and said the bloody sockprint was closer in size to Haysom's foot than Soering's.
Maj. Ricky Gardner, who led the investigation as a rookie BedfordCounty sheriff's detective 22 years ago, keeps a copy of the bloody sockprint in a thick loose-leaf binder of memorabilia from the case. He still gets several requests a year to give presentations about it to college classes and community gatherings.
Gardner remains certain of Soering's guilt: "There's no doubt in my mind. I don't have any trouble sleeping at night; I never have. Yes, I wish we'd had more physical evidence, but you've got to play the cards you're dealt."
Soering says his years of Christian meditation have helped him come to see that he bears a degree of moral guilt for the slayings. He possibly could have prevented the crime, he says, by encouraging his girlfriend to seek professional counseling.
He also admits he is not totally innocent, even in the legal sense, because he helped cover up the murders. For years, he says, he prayed - individually, by name - for the Haysoms' siblings and children.
"I hurt all those people terribly," he said. "I should have told the truth from the very beginning."
Haysom will qualify for mandatory release in 2032, when she is 68. She has maintained a low profile since the trials, shunning all interviews.
Like Soering, she has found a literary outlet. For the past four years she has written a column, "Glimpses from Inside," for the Fluvanna Review, a weekly newspaper published near Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where she is housed.
As a double lifer, Soering has no mandatory release date. Barring parole or clemency, he will die in prison.
In his forthcoming book, he describes watching, every few months, as another fellow lifer is wheeled out of prison on a gurney.
"We are being slowly killed," he wrote. "Virtually every one of us will leave state custody in a body bag.... Capital punishment on the installment plan!... America, congratulate yourself: You have managed to invent a punishment worse than death."
In his first book, he wrote: "I would much rather be executed by whatever means the state finds convenient."
Soering's plea for release has drawn dozens of letters of support. Prominent among them is one from Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to the United States. Since he is a German citizen, Soering would be deported to Germany if released.
"There is a good chance that Mr. Soering may develop into an active and contributing member of society," Scharioth wrote. "German church and government officials have already pledged to help Mr. Soering find a place to live and work and to otherwise help with his reintegration."
Many supportive letters have come from priests, nuns and other religious figures, some of whom say Soering's example has enriched their own spiritual lives.
One is Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk at a monastery in the Colorado Rockies who is one of the world's leading proponents of Christian contemplative prayer. He has visited Soering twice, once with a film crew working on a documentary.
A Charlotte, N.C., producer has bought the rights to the trial footage and is also planning a film on Soering.
At Brunswick, Soering organized a Centering Prayer group for inmates. The twice-monthly gatherings attract between five and 15 prisoners who sit silently in a circle.
In his newest book, Soering writes that he knows he is blessed compared with many of his fellow prisoners: He has a rich spiritual life, a literary outlet, friends and supporters on the outside.
"Yet even I, with all my blessings, feel the vise of time squeezing the life breath out of me.... Time is a rock on your chest that crushes you slowly, slowly."
October 31, 2018