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Justice Department: Soering will stay in Virginia

The U.S. attorney general said Virginia hasn't given clear consent to transfer Soering to Germany.

(by Rex Bowman, The Roanoke Times, July 8, 2010)

The U.S. Justice Department said it will not try to remove convicted killer Jens Soering from a Virginia prison to send him back to his native Germany because it does not have the state's "clear and unambiguous" approval.

The decision, reached after Virginia sent mixed signals to the Justice Department, quashes Soering's efforts to win transfer to a prison in Germany, where he could be eligible for release after two years. Gov. Bob McDonnell has vigorously opposed efforts to remove Soering from the Buckingham Correctional Center.

"You should be assured that it is the position of the United States Department of Justice that Jens Soering will not be considered for transfer to Germany unless and until the Commonwealth of Virginia provides clear and unambiguous consent to such a transfer," stated a July 6 letter to McDonnell from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson offered little comment on the decision, saying only that the governor is pleased.

The Justice Department decision represents a rejection of former Gov. Tim Kaine's wishes. In his last week in office, in January, Kaine notified the department of his consent to Soering's transfer.

Soering, the son of a German diplomat, is serving two life sentences for the 1985 killing of a Bedford County couple. He repeatedly has been denied parole.

When Kaine's position became publicly known, Bedford-area residents as well as friends and family of the couple expressed outrage.

Three days into office, McDonnell countermanded Kaine's request, telling the Justice Department to disregard it because the official position of Virginia is that Soering should stay where he is.

In his letter, Holder said his position is that McDonnell has withdrawn Virginia's consent to the transfer. He wrote:

"From a federal perspective, that withdrawal is controlling, since nothing in either the Council of Europe Transfer Convention or the federal legislation establishing the transfer program prevents a state from withdrawing its consent prior to the physical transfer of the prisoner."

However, Holder held out the possibility that Soering could still one day win his transfer. Holder wrote that "we cannot consider Jens Soering for transfer unless and until one of two events occurs: first, either you or a subsequent Governor decides to grant consent to transfer; or second, a judicial challenge is brought to your withdrawal of consent, and Virginia state courts determine that the consent of a Virginia Governor to transfer a prisoner cannot be revoked by a subsequent Governor under Virginia state law."

Bishop Walter Sullivan, former head of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and a longtime Soering supporter, criticized Holder's decision and said that Virginia has nothing to gain by holding Soering. He said it's unlikely that anyone will legally challenge McDonnell's order on the prisoner's behalf.

"I'm very disappointed with the decision," Sullivan said. "I know Jens, and I've visited him many times, and I find it interesting that we want to spend all this money incarcerating him. We ought to send him back to Germany."

In a trial that made headlines nationwide, Soering was convicted of the 1985 murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom. Soering was a student at the University of Virginia at the time. The Haysoms were the parents of Soering's girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, also a UVa student. She testified against Soering and is serving a 90-year sentence for her role in the double murder.

Soering himself confessed to the crime, but later recanted and said he only confessed in order to protect his girlfriend. He still maintains his innocence.

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