The gruesome murders of Nancy and Derek Haysom in 1985 were an international media sensation. The Haysoms were wealthy, respected members of Virginia society, and the murder conviction of their daughter Elizabeth and her German boyfriend Jens Soering sent shock waves through the rural community of Bedford County. Elizabeth and Jens had met in a university program for high achieving students. She was a product of European boarding schools, he was the son of a diplomat. After being arrested in London, England, for passing bad checks in 1986, they were both extradited to the United States and have now spent over 30 years behind bars. This beautifully crafted film reveals a mismanaged, or perhaps completely corrupted, judicial process. This was the first criminal trial held in front of TV cameras — the first high-profile, international case tried in a small town.
Investigations over the past 3 years have turned up stunning evidence that was previously suppressed or deemed inadmissible. New forensic techniques have disproven evidence that was key to Soering’s original conviction. Denied parole 12 times, his next hearing in 2017 may have a different outcome, at the same time the film is in release. Unidentified fingerprints, photographic evidence that points to sexual abuse, the presiding judge’s friendship with the victims, a missing FBI profile, a bloody car with a knife under the seat — all point to a very different story, one that is revealed in the film.
She was slender, wearing purple jeans and a t-shirt that was not quite white. That is how she came into his life – a bit run down: Elizabeth Roxanne Haysom. It was an evening in August 1984, an orientation event for the scholarship recipients of the University of Virginia. How many times in the past 29 years has he thought back to that meeting? It was the evening on which his life began to slide away.
He was young, naïve, a pale guy with big glasses. He was immediately entranced by her arrogance, her grey blue-green eyes, her gaze so bored that it almost crushed him. Now he sits under the harsh neon light of his prison world. For over 29 years, inmate #1161655 has been locked away in a cell. He has never used a cell phone, he has never been on the Internet, he only knows his mother’s grave from two photos, for decades he has not touched a tree or eaten a steak. When he was locked up behind bars the phones still had a rotary dial.
His name is Jens Soering. Nationality: German. He is the son of a German diplomat, was born on August 1, 1966, in Thailand, raised in Germany and America.
He was an ambitious child, a keen student, an academic scholarship winner. Everything seemed possible. Until that evening when he met Elizabeth Roxanne Haysom, the beautiful, irresistible Liz.
She simply stunned him with her stories. Everything about her was special: Her father was a Canadian steel baron, her mother a member of the Astor family. She told him that she had been sexually abused by her own mother, that she had been brutally raped in a boarding school in Switzerland, that she had fled with her lesbian lover and spent months in Europe hiding, and that she finally wanted to get away from her drug addiction. After a few months they were a couple. Jens could not believe his luck. Ironically, she had chosen him. For him she was the one. For her, he would do anything.
(Pictures left: Elizabeth Haysom with her father Derek Haysom / letter from Elizabeth Haysom to Jens Soering, 1984 / Dormitory of Elizabeth Haysom / Elizabeth Haysom 1993. Right: Jens Soering’s almanac picture / Jens Soering’s dormitory / Jens Soering, 1985)
On April 30, 1986, the game was over. They were arrested as Christopher P. Noe and Tara Lucy Noe in a department store in London. That their love was over, there and then, he did not know.
Jens Soering was 19 years old then, today he is 50. More than half of his life he has spent in prison. He’s been through all phases: the shock, the anger, the self-hatred, the search for God, the loss of faith, the endless cycle of hope and hopelessness.
In the beginning he was in England, in Brixton, a prison that stank of urine, sweat and boiled cabbage. Elizabeth Haysom admitted killing her parents, then withdrew her confession and accused him. As promised, Jens also confessed – twice, and in great detail. He believed he had diplomatic immunity because of his father.
He thought he would be sent to Germany, sentenced to a few years in a juvenile prison. Without this sacrifice, she would die in the electric chair. It seemed like a fair trade: his life for hers.
But then he found out that he was not covered by his father’s diplomatic immunity. Now he himself faced execution in the electric chair. He withdrew his confession and began to fight for his life. For months he worked through files, in which they argued against his extradition to the US on the grounds that the method of execution was inhumane. He saw photographs of burnt hair on the forearms of ececuted prisoners, read descriptions of eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and that it smells like fried pork when a man dies in an electric chair. Three years – throughout that time he always kept a rope under his mattress.
(Pictures left: Fake identification cards and checks / Detective Constable Terry Wright and US-investigator Ricky Gardner in Richmond, England. Right: Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Updike and Ricky Gardner in London)
On July 7, 1989, the European Court of Human Rights announced that the threat of the death penalty would constitute “torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.” Reluctantly, and under protest, Virginia agreed to drop the death penalty. On January 12, 1990, Jens Soering was extradited to the US.
He began his prison life with a paper bag full of belongings. He was not able to do even one pull-up. Today, he does 220 pull-ups, 320 push-ups, 150 dips, and 280 crunches every other morning. He runs seven miles four times a week. He has survived seven American prisons, including two “Supermax” facilities. Before he turned his white, slim body into a mountain of muscles, he was almost raped by a bodybuilder, he was hit by a rubber bullet when the guards shot at another inmate, and one of his cellmates hung himself from his bunk bed. He spent weeks in the “hole” – solitary confinement – 23 hours a day alone in a cell. There he saw prisoners who smeared themselves from head to toe with feces. Soering survived it all. Sometimes that surprises even him.
“I’m innocent,” Jens Soering said when he was sentenced in the US on September 4, 1990, to two terms of life imprisonment for the murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom. Elizabeth got 90 years as an accomplice before the fact. It was a case with no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon, there were inconsistencies, procedural errors, and a biased judge. A self-appointed expert who incriminated Soering was allowed to testify in court, while real experts who could have exonerated him were not heard. The presiding judge, William Sweeney, was a friend of the brother of Nancy Haysom. In a magazine interview before the trial, Judge Sweeney said that Elizabeth was surprised that Jens “took the dare” and killed her parents. Nevertheless Judge Sweeney refused to step down and presided over the trial himself.
(Pictures from left to right: Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia / James Updike at a press conference 1990 / Jens Soering’s extradition / Jens Soering in the courtroom with judge Sweeney)
The trial of Jens Soering became a media frenzy. During the court proceedings, a book describing imaginatively how Jens murdered the Haysoms was being sold on the courthouse steps. The trial was one of the first to be televised live. Each day crowds gathered to watch the “German bastard” paraded in and out of the halls of justice.
The video footage shows Jens as he saw Elizabeth again for the first time in three years. She appeared in court to testify against him. He looks at her, showing no emotions when she says that he has killed her parents.
“I’m innocent,” Soering says even today. He has been counting the days for decades. By now, the shock, the anger, and even God are gone. All that is left is regret – and the realization that there had never been any love at all.
After twenty years of incarceration, most inmates break down and give up, says Jens Soering. But not in his case. For nine years he prayed meditatively for two hours each day. Then he wrote books like a man possessed: on the mystical literature of the Middle Ages, about the American legal system, about his ruined life.
He gave interviews and wrote for newspapers and magazines throughout the US. There were more and more supporters, the “Friends of Jens Soering” were established. Members of parliament, lawyers, authors, retired law enforcement officials, bishops, poets and Hollywood actors – they all fight for him.
Again and again there was hope, but much more often there was disappointment. When Soerings German passport expired, no one wanted to give him a new one. He would have been stateless, outlawed. In 1996, correctional officials decided to ban foreign language books, newspapers and magazines in prisons. The ban persists until this day. Sometimes Jens Soering searches for German words – and cannot find them.
(Pictures from left to right: Elizabeth Haysom and Ricky Gardner testify at the trial of Jens Soering / Commonwealth’s Attorney James Updike / Jens Soering and his lawyer Richard Neaton; judge William Sweeney, Elizabeth Haysom, Jim Updike with footprint evidence)
There were a few days in which Jens Soering thought he would come home. On January 12, 2010, on one of his last days in office, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, Timothy M. Kaine, approved Jens Soering’s transfer to Germany.
On January 14, 2010, Soering heard the news. He was full of joy: For the first time after all these years, he felt like a free man. It was his 8695th day in captivity – the equivalent of 208,680 hours or 751,248 000 seconds. He thought there were only a few days, hours and seconds more. In Ulm, Germany, a prison cell was ready for him and a glass of Nutella waited for him. Bread with Nutella – paradise.
But then the Virginian press found out about the planned transfer. There was outrage in the local papers. Again Soering was the German beast. Even Elizabeth Haysom came forward for the first time after all these years and said: “If he was unaware, if he was somehow innocent, I would shout it from the rooftops.”
On January 19, it was all over. The new governor of Virginia took office. Republican Robert F. McDonnell decided two things on his first day at work: He re-opened the public toilets on the highways of Virginia. And he revoked the consent of Virginia for the transfer of prisoner Jens Soering to Germany.
(Pictures from left top to right: Former Democratic Governor Timothy M. Kaine and his successor, the Republican Robert F. McDonnell / Jens Soering at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia)
Typically, the transfer of a foreign prisoner to serve his sentence in his home country happens without notice. But in 2010, in Jens Soering’s case, it became a political issue because it was made to appear as being soft on crime. Soering says: “ There are more than 140 000 prisoners with a life sentence in America, they will almost all die behind bars. Most politicians brag about it. Some say a life sentence was a harsher punishment than a quick, painless lethal injection. They are right. Mercy means political death here.”
After Governor McDonnell reversal of the repatriation order, Soering’s lawyers tried for months to bring a lawsuit to enforce the transfer to Germany. But the lawsuit was not even accepted in court. At first, it lay on the desk of the legal advisor to the governor. Then the Attorney General of Virginia refused to accept the complaint. Finally it was rejected outright.
Jens Soering sits in his prison cell. No, he says, he does not often think about Elizabeth Haysom. On the other hand, how can you think of anything else in such a place? His first love, the reason why he is here. She sits just 35 miles north of his prison, in the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy.
Jens Soering continues to fight. A new witness showed up, who saw Elizabeth Haysom, together with another man, when they picked up a blood-stained car from his garage. New information about the footprints at the crime scene has come to light.
And a DNA analysis revealed that none of the DNA evidence from the crime scene was Soering’s. In fact, of the 42 blood samples tested, 11 belonged to someone other than him. This person’s identity remains unknown. There is an FBI profile that has disappeared. And there is a still an unattributed fingerprint, found on a glass at the crime scene. The fingerprint of the accomplice? A search in the US database AFIS did not bring up any results, which only shows that this person has never been arrested and registered.
August 2016 – Jens Soering's attorney Steve Rosenfield sends a new petition to the Governor of Virginia – this time it requests the unconditional recognition of Jens Soering's innocence. The petition is based on new DNA analysis that shows that the traces found at the scene, are of a man, but that this man is not Jens Soering. Furthermore, a report from the British interrogation expert Andy Griffiths concludes after months of analysis of all documents, that there are significant doubts about the credibility of Jens Soering's confession.
September 2016 – In a new interview, Elizabeth Haysom says that by the time of the murders she had been sexually abused by her mother for eight years.
(Pictures from left top to right: Gail Ball and Dave Watson (above) / former investigator of the Bedford County Sheriff´s Department Chuck Reid (below) / Jens Soering 2014 / Gail Marshall, Gail Ball, Tom Elliott and Rich Zorn at Jens Soering’s parole hearing 2012 )