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The Promise: Why Did Soering Confess?


The Making of a Murderer – a documentary that aired on Netflix – cast doubt on the guilt of a man convicted of murder in Wisconsin and raised questions about law enforcement and the justice system there.  Now, Virginia is coming under the microscope with a film premiering in June. 

The Promise is a documentary about Jens Soering, a UVA honors student from Germany who, in 1990, was convicted of fatally stabbing his girlfriend’s parents in their Bedford County home.

“I never thought that Jens would murder my parents.  I thought he might do a lot of things, but to kill somebody?  I never believed he would do that to my parents.  I still can hardly believe it.  No matter what I said to him, no matter what I had written to him, he had a choice whether to kill my parents or not!” 

 At first, Jens confessed after 16 hours of interrogation over four days. German journalist and filmmaker Karin Steinberger says she has heard a recording of that confession.

She says, “You can hear that he is struggling, and you know in this confession there are mistakes – big mistakes.”

At a café in Munich, she described some of those errors.  Jens said, for example, that Mrs. Haysom was wearing blue jeans, when – in fact – she wore a flowery housecoat.  He recalled Mr. Haysom’s body in one position, when it was found in another, and the weapon he claimed to have used was not a double-bladed hunting knife, what detectives felt sure was employed.

Then there was the question of motive.  Prosecutors surmised that Soering killed the Haysoms because they didn’t approve of his relationship with their daughter, but Karin Steinberger posits another possible motive – this one for Elizabeth, who admitted her mother had taken nude pictures of her as a child. 

“I know it was a huge taboo in the 80’s, especially sexual abuse by the mother.  I think even now it is a kind of taboo. These pictures were sealed off.  They weren’t there at the court. This is incredible, because this makes a huge motive,” says Steinberger.

Bedford County Detective Ricky Gardner was aware of some possible sexual abuse. He says, “She acknowledged that her mother had touched her and fondled her and tried to have a romantic relationship with her.“  When asked if he thought it was significant, he says, No, no.  It’s bizarre, but it doesn’t link back to the murder or anything.”  

On the weekend when her parents were killed, Elizabeth and Jens had gone to Washington.  He says she left him there, explaining she had to settle a debt with her drug dealer.  She was, admittedly, using heroin, and filmmaker Steinberger claims her dealer was the son of a prominent family in Bedford.

He was never called to the witness stand , and when an expert on tire tracks testified that a bloody sock print was likely made by Jens, his lawyer didn’t call any real experts to dispute the claim.  That was shocking to Gail Marshall, a former deputy attorney general who handled one of Soering’s appeals. “One of the jurors said that at the beginning the jury was divided six-six, and that the only reason he did decide to find Jens guilty was the sock print,” says Marshall.

In fact, Marshall says, you can’t tell much of anything from a sock print.   All of this begs the question.  Why did Soering confess?  The film offers possible evidence that Soering made a promise to protect the real killer – Elizabeth.  As the son of a German diplomat, he thought he’d have special legal protection – be sent back to Germany for trial. Instead, he’s spent more than half of his life in Virginia prisons.