Experts think somewhere between four and ten percent of people imprisoned in this country are actually innocent. Here in Virginia prisoners can ask for a pardon, but it can take years for the state to review those requests. Some inmates are also eligible for parole, but under state law innocence is not a reason for the parole board to release anyone. That leaves one of the state’s best-known cases in limbo.
52-year-old Jens Soering has spent most of his life in Virginia prisons, insisting he did not kill his former girlfriend’s parents – Derek and Nancy Haysom. At first he says, he confessed -- hoping to protect Elizabeth Haysom – who had said she hated her parents and wanted them dead. There were big mistakes in Soering’s confession, and mistakes in his trial, but he was convicted.
Many Republicans, like Delegate Rob Bell, argue Soering – the son of a low-level German diplomat – should never be released. Bell was outraged in 2009 when former Governor Tim Kaine proposed sending Soering back to Germany, and begged fellow lawmakers to sign a letter opposing the transfer.
“If you believe that the Virginia criminal justice system is unfair because it favors those who are rich or well-connected or white, you should sign the letter," he said on the floor of Virginia's House of Delegates. "Soering is trying to make a game of this. Please do not let him win. Sign the letter asking the justice department to do the right thing and deny the transfer.”
Soering was already packing his bags when the newly elected Governor, Bob McDonnell, told the Justice Department that Virginia would not hand the prisoner over.
Since then Soering’s lawyer – Steve Rosenfield – has presented evidence that was not available at trial.
"In February of 2017 I hired one DNA expert who is nationally-known and then three months later a second expert to get an independent opinion and both of them concluded that two men left their blood at the crime scene, neither of whom was Jens Soering," he says.
The sheriff of Albemarle County, Chip Harding, did his own investigation, spending hundreds of hours reviewing the case, and concluded Soering could not be convicted today, and Governor Terry McAuliffe said he would consider a pardon request.
“I want to see justice, and the worst thing is somebody incarcerated who did not commit the crime! I want you to know the process is going on. I take it very seriously. I saw the report the other day. I called my counsel again and said I wanted an update. I want you to know that I am paying very close attention to that,” he told RadioIQ.
But months passed, and McAuliffe left office without making a decision. Soering was disappointed but not surprised.
“It’s because he wants to run for president, he explained. "He’s afraid that Donald Trump is going to run a TV ad against him saying, 'In his final days in office Terry McAuliffe pardoned a vicious double-murderer.”
Governor Ralph Northam said he would wait to hear from investigators with the parole board, who have been reviewing the case for more than two years. Soering is eligible for parole and has been a model prisoner. If freed, he would be sent back to Germany, a country that has asked for his return. But recently, for the 14th time, the board refused to release him – a decision that baffled attorney Rosenfield.
"There are 17 people who’ve been paroled in the last two years with this fairly progressive parole board who have been convicted of capital murder or multiple murders who’ve been released after spending less time than Jens Soering," he explains.
And he doesn’t think justice can be done in a state that employs just six retired state police, part-time, to investigate claims of innocence.
"If the Commonwealth wants to get serious about getting innocent people out of prisons , they need to spend the money to hire full-time investigators and an office to supervise them independent of the governor's office to investigate impartially and promptly rather than have years go by for these investigation,” Rosenfield argues.
Until then, Soering is pinning his hopes on several celebrities who are now calling for his release. We’ll have that story Monday. In Charlottesville, I’m Sandy Hausman.