Soering in the News

The FAZ catches up with Jens Soering in this article (G). (A different article about Soering in English is here.) Soering, a German national, was the plaintiff in the 1989 case of Soering v. United Kingdom, ECHR (1989) Series A, No. 161, 34, which held that extraditing Soering from the UK to Virginia would violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids governments to subject persons to "torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Soering had been an exchange student on full scholarship at the University of Virginia when he was implicated in the March 1985 stabbing murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of his girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom, also a University of Virginia honors student.

The couple fled the country shortly after the murders and were finally arrested in the United Kingdom. In the court case, the European Court of Human Rights held that Soering’s extradition to Virginia to face trial on murder charges which could be punished by the death penalty was inconsistent with Article 3 of the ECHR. The court singled out the "death-row phenomenon," in which prisoners wait in limbo for years for their appeals to be resolved, to be a form of psychological torture.

Eventually, Virginia waived the death penalty and Soering was extradited for trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Soering chose the wrong state in which to commit a double-murder: Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has carried out in the past 30 years, life imprisonment means life, and the parole board is notoriously stingy (Virginia abolished parole in 1995). Thus, Soering has languished behind bars for almost two decades, and the chances of an early release appear slim. His lawyers have filed several appeals of his conviction, none of which has borne fruit. Efforts to achieve Soering’s transfer, so that he can serve out his sentence in Germany (where he would long ago have been released from prison) seem slightly more promising.

According to the FAZ, Soering has published four books and has been working on a fifth. He has turned into a theologian and prison reformer; he describes one of his books as being a "christian-conservative" analysis of criminal-justice policy (yes, conservative — Soering was a diplomat’s son; upper-crust class allegiances die hard). This is European coverage of the American criminal-justice system, so the article highlights Soering’s claim of innocence. Haysom, his girlfriend, pleaded guilty, received a 90-year sentence, and testified against Soering. At the time of the murders, she was leading a confused, drug-addled existence. Her parents disapproved of her relationship with Soering, giving them both a motive.

Soering claims, however, that she actually murdered her parents herself, after feeding Soering a cover story about a drug deal and asking him to help her establish an alibi. There are a lot of problems with that story, though, including confessions* Soering gave after his arrest in London. According to the FAZ article, Soering now claims that he was induced to confess because his British attorneys told him that an claim of innocence would increase the likelihood of his being extradited to Virginia, since the Brits would reason that American courts "won’t convict an innocent person." Got that? If that reasoning seems a little sketchy, ask yourself the following question: Which story would seem more likely to make Virginia want to try you — a claim to be innocent of the murder of two of its citizens, or a confession to the murder of two of its citizens?

As for Soering being transferred to Germany or released on parole (absent some special agreement, one would probably result in the other), I’m of two minds. The "fairness" mind says there seems to be no special reason why Soering should receive more favorable treatment than anyone else who has received life sentences in Virginia for brutal double-murders. I doubt very many of those people get parole, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason why Soering should simply because the German ambassador to the United States has stepped in on his behalf. The other mind, the "mercy" mind, says that Soering has been a model prisoner, poses a negligble risk of future violence (crime-of-passion killers rarely re-offend, and rates of violence crime drop preciptously after age 40). I am also an opponent of long prison sentences on both practical and principled grounds.

So there you have it. A kind of wishy-washy post, I know but even Homer nods, and I’m no Homer.

* For the record, here is the Virginia Supreme Court dismissing Soering’s claim of innocence: 

Additionally, in order to entertain a reasonable doubt [about Soering’s guilt] the jury would have to disregard the overwhelming evidence presented at Soering’s criminal trial that he alone committed the murders. For example, he confessed repeatedly in great detail, and the majority of those details fit the facts developed by the criminal investigation: the slashing of the victims’ throats compatible with the manner he said he held the knife; the injuries he sustained during the violence at the time of the murders, which injuries were later observed at the funeral; the exterior lights left burning by the murderer controlled by a switch in a back bedroom, a location unknown to a stranger to the home like Soering, but known to a family member like Elizabeth; and documentary evidence (letters and diary entries) implicating him in the crimes, just to mention a few of the many circumstances consistent with his confessions. Moreover, Soering had a motive to kill his lover’s parents, who opposed his relationship with their daughter. And, his flight to Europe after avoiding the police, resulting in the forfeiture of valuable scholarships, is also consistent with his admitted guilt.

Soering v. Deeds, 499 S.E.2d 514, 518 (Va. 1998).

2 thoughts on “Soering in the News

  1. Soering was a victim of bad timing in another sense – the crime took place during the early stages of the backlash against an almost-fatal weakening of the US justice system which occurred between 1965 and 1980. Had he committed the murder a decade before he very likely would have walked free or been given a derisory sentence – horrific crime or not.

    There were some good facets of that era; I think the Miranda warning has proven a good thing in the long run. But it also marked a time when many of the very elites previously entrusted with the integrity of the justice system seemed determined to destroy all trust in that system among ordinary US citizens – and succeeded.

    Having destroyed that confidence by releasing prisoners upon the tiniest of pretexts and giving the smallest of sentences (or no jail at all) for major crimes – the voting populace reacted by electing officials who enacted policies removing the discretion which the judiciary and legal elites had enjoyed. And (alas) had abused.

    A number of very good things disappeared during that era – most notably public support for strong legal appeals processes and for sentence commutation and pardon procedures.

    About Soering himself? I think he probably did it – denials to the contrary. I am very reluctant to reverse the jury verdict in court – that would be destructive without compelling evidence of innocence. If viable pardon procedures were politically possible – or if parole boards could be trusted to protect the public interest first – that would be good.

    But let’s not forget what happened to cause this state of affairs; the US justice system had a near-death experience – self-inflicted by the very elites we the people trusted to protect us. That trust must be restored before the rest of it can happen…..

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