After nearly 34 years behind bars, my friend and co-author Jens Soering has finally won some measure of justice. The Virginia Parole Board has paroled him and ordered him deported to his native Germany.
His co-defendant and ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom has also been paroled and will be sent back to Canada, where she is a citizen.
Thus ends the amazing true-crime saga that Jens and I told in our 2017 book A Far, Far Better Thing: Did a Fatal Attraction Lead to a Wrongful Conviction?
Jens and Elizabeth were honor students at the University of Virginia in 1985 when Elizabeth’s parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, were found brutally murdered in their Bedford County home outside Lynchburg. Both initially confessed to the crime, but at trial Jens recanted, saying he confessed falsely to save his girlfriend from the electric chair.
He has been proclaiming his innocence ever since, and in the book we show how evidence has continued to pile up over the years pointing to a tragic miscarriage of justice. A host of supporters – ranging from the original lead investigator in the case to celebrities like Martin Sheen and John Grisham – came to the same conclusion.
But the Virginia authorities never admitted their mistake – not even in granting Jens his freedom. He had petitioned Gov. Ralph Northam for a pardon, but the governor turned him down, saying he wasn’t convinced of his innocence. Instead, the parole board said the pair were being released based on their youth at the time of the crime, their long incarceration and the fact that they were model prisoners.
It’s not the moral victory Jens would have preferred. But at least, at age 53 he will now have the chance to live something approaching a normal life.
And to give credit where it’s due, this decision reflects a welcome shift from vengeance to mercy by the parole board appointees of Northam and his predecessor Terry McAuliffe.
Jens and Elizabeth are lucky in one respect: They were convicted before Virginia abolished parole in 1995. If the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly is serious about criminal justice reform, reinstatement of parole ought to be high on the list of priorities. There are plenty of people locked up in Virginia’s gulag of prisons who could be freed with little to no risk to the public and great savings for the taxpayers.
For those interested in learning more about Jens’ case, our book is still available for purchase online. If you’d prefer a signed copy, come see me at the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal on Saturday, Dec. 7, 1-4 p.m., or Sunday, Dec. 8, noon-4 p.m., or at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2-5 p.m.