Will Jens Soering Get to Go home?
(by Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, December 10, 2015, Link)
Last month, I published a piece in the magazine, “Blood Ties,” about one of the strangest murder stories I’ve ever encountered. The crime, committed in the spring of 1985, entailed the brutal slaughter of a married couple in late middle age, just outside Lynchburg, Virginia. Half a year after the events, the police conducted their first interview with Jens Soering, a German scholarship student at the University of Virginia who was dating the murdered couple’s daughter, Elizabeth Haysom. Soering and Haysom fled after the interview, and travelled across Europe and Asia. When they were captured, in London, for unrelated check frauds, a detective and a prosecutor from Virginia flew to the U.K. to question them. This time, under sustained interrogation, with no lawyer present, Soering offered a confession for the murders. Although he later rescinded the account, saying that he had been trying to protect Haysom—she was actually the killer, he said—he was tried, found guilty, and given two life sentences. Habeas-corpus petitions brought no relief, and, since 1990, he has served his time in state prisons. Haysom, who pleaded guilty as an accessory before the fact, is also incarcerated, with a ninety-year sentence. Both Haysom and Soering have written books and articles from behind bars.
Recently, a curious political drama erupted in the wake of this old case. Soering has long held that he’s innocent. Like Haysom, he has never been paroled. Seeking avenues of redress in the late two-thousands, he found another possible option. An obscure agreement of the Council of Europe meant that he could be repatriated to Germany, with the approval of Germany and Virginia. Because Soering had already served the maximum German prison time for his conviction and record, this repatriation could allow for his release on European soil.
Tim Kaine, who was the governor of Virginia at the time, balked. He told Soering’s associates that he’d sign off only if additional conditions were met. Instead of a standard repatriation deal, which could mean Soering’s release in Germany, this would have to be a repatriative prison transfer, in which he was moved from a cell in the U.S. to a cell in Germany. Soering would need to stay behind German bars for at least two more years, regardless of the German sentencing norms. When these requirements were met, six years ago, Kaine authorized Soering’s repatriation. Four days later, a new governor, Robert McDonnell, took office, and he quickly repealed Kaine’s approval. Terry McAuliffe, who succeeded the now-disgraced McDonnell, is in a position to repeal the repeal, allowing Kaine’s original order to go through.
My article on the Haysom case, which traced this political Ping-Pong up to the present, ran in early November. Later in the month, answering the news that Soering was still chasing the repatriation deal approved by Kaine, a group of eighteen Republican delegates in Virginia sent McAuliffe, who is a Democrat, a letter. It urged McAuliffe not to overturn McDonnell’s repeal. Soering’s return to Germany would “significantly undermine the integrity of Virginia’s criminal justice system,” they wrote. “Mr. Soering has not accepted responsibility for his actions or demonstrated any sense of remorse.” The Washington Post picked up news of the letter this week, applying further public scrutiny to McAuliffe’s pending decision.
The delegates’ letter is puzzling. Given what is known about the case today, a stance against repatriation is a confusing position to stake out.
For one thing, it’s the stance that benefits nobody. Neither Soering nor the German leaders eager to repatriate him get relief. Americans are not safer on the streets with Soering in a Virginia prison: as a convict and a foreign citizen, he’d be expected to be barred, on his repatriation, from ever reëntering the U.S. The overcrowded Virginia Department of Corrections doesn’t benefit from losing a rare chance to offload one of its life charges onto another country’s system. (Neither, for that matter, do the taxpayers of Virginia; by some calculations, each prisoner costs an average of $25,129 a year to hold.) Haysom does not benefit; she told me that she hoped Soering would be repatriated. At this point, neither does most of her—which is to say, the victims’—family. Those who spoke to me wanted Haysom paroled, and any stringency levelled on Soering carries onto the future of her incarceration, too. (Haysom, who holds Canadian citizenship, is theoretically eligible for similar repatriation, although no process is currently under way.)
There are just two reasons to insist that Soering, offered a legal transfer, remain in Virginia’s justice system: a wish to inflict on him the maximum possible punishment in any available system, and a belief that his Virginia sentencing embodied the purest form of justice possible. The first reason veers toward cruelty, and the second poses problems of its own.
Legally speaking, Soering’s case was a mess of exceptions and irregularities—starting from the moment when he, as a German citizen in British custody for a British crime, was interrogated by American officials without a warrant (and without a lawyer), confessing to the murders in a liminal zone of jurisdiction and national rights. Whether he would even be extradited into Virginia’s criminal-justice system was less than certain for a couple of years. Once there, he was tried by a judge who declined to recuse himself despite having attended a party for the victims and announcing a theory of the case before the trial. As I detail in “Blood Ties,” the physical case against Soering came down to one forensically unambiguous link: spots of O-type blood, which happens to be the most common type in the population. At the same time, the narrative on which he was convicted failed to explain more striking evidence (such as a bloody shoe print smaller than his foot). It is fully possible that Jens Soering is a murderer; in my piece, I explore scenarios of potential guilt. But any justice done to him occurred despite significant procedural exceptions and inadequacies. There are many cases whose precise sentences and verdicts carry “the integrity of Virginia’s criminal justice system,” but the conviction of Jens Soering is not one.
Why the Republican delegates should insist on the integrity of this particular sentence, to nobody’s particular benefit, is not obvious. One assumes that their motives are political—that they see blocking repatriation as an easy way to stake out tough-on-crime turf, and perhaps to blow a raspberry at Germany’s rehabilitory system on the way. It will be revealing, then, to see whether McAuliffe follows their lead. The governorship of Virginia is an odd position, caught between the local concerns of a mostly suburban commonwealth and the federal preoccupations of the nation’s capital, which it adjoins. Normally, a state executive might be smart to entertain a request from delegates, especially across party lines: political favors pay returns. This year, though, the calculus is apt to be different, due to factors on the national stage. McAuliffe is a virtuosic Democratic fund-raiser who has chaired Presidential campaigns for both Bill and Hillary Clinton; at one point, he put up $1.35 million to help the couple buy a New York home. With Hillary Clinton likely to be next year’s Presidential front-runner, and McAuliffe now the governor of a powerful state (with high party approval in that role), he has everything to look forward to in 2016. The only prudence would be not to rock the boat too much.
Bowing to Virginia’s Republican delegates on Soering’s repatriation hardly counts as boat-rocking, of course. But it’s not a federally appealing stance, either. While the Haysom murder case is largely unknown in America, it has been amply publicized in Germany for years. Angela Merkel supports Soering’s repatriation and raised her concerns during talks with President Obama this year. McAuliffe has already received a petition signed by a hundred and twenty members of the Bundestag. Germany wants Soering back—badly. What started as an oddity of international law is now a point of global politics.
That is why McAuliffe’s predicament is fraught. (The governor’s office has not responded to a request for comment.) These are crucial and delicate days in the relationship between the U.S. and its European allies, and a governor with an eye on the national interest would be ill-advised to introduce new frictions, even minor, into that exchange. In the constellation of gubernatorial decisions, Soering’s repatriative prison transfer is small, but McAuliffe’s choice will reveal something about his future course. One path—refusing to reinstate repatriation—would establish him as a strong but parochially minded executive, focussed on Virginia’s regional politics. The other—letting the transfer go through—would mark him as a politician who sees past the pale of his home turf, thinking on a national scale.
What’s clear is that the choice will not fade away on its own, and the stakes of this strange, haunting case have not lessened with time. Part of what interested me about the Haysom murders was the way the story had grown up beside its characters. What started with the adolescent fantasies and petty concerns of a campus romance ended up, thirty years later, as a political drama playing out among the leaders of two continents. In a world where every global action has a human past, that’s probably a commoner prelude to history than we know.