The turmoil surrounding Governor Ralph Northam could mean further delays for prisoners requesting pardons from him -- among them Jens Soering, a German man who's been in Virginia prisons for nearly 30 years. There's growing evidence he did not murder his girlfriend's parents when he was a student at the University of Virginia, but Governors McAuliffe and Northam have refused to release him until a parole board investigation is complete. That probe has gone on for more than two years. Now, several celebrities are joining the fight to set Soering free as Sandy Hausman reports.
Charlottesville area resident John Grisham has written more than 40 novels, but in 2012 he published a work of non-fiction --The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small town. It’s now the basis for a series on Netflix.
“If I wrote the Innocent Man as a novel, folks probably wouldn’t believe it," he says. "In small towns like Ada, prosecutors and police are under enormous pressure to solve two sensational murders.”
Grisham knows Ada, Oklahoma isn’t the only place these things happen, and he’s now lending his name to a Virginia case involving Jens Soering, a former honors student at the University of Virginia who got involved with an older student from Bedford County – a woman who made no secret of wishing her parents dead. Soering initially confessed to killing them, but later insisted he had done so only to protect his girlfriend from execution. No forensic evidence put Soering at the scene of the crime, but DNA now identifies two other men who might still be at large. That worries Jason Flom, a founding board memeber of the Innocence Project.
“When we’ve been able to identify the actual perpetrator, which we very often do with DNA, we find that that person has gone on to commit other heinous crimes,” he explains.
Flom is a legendary music promoter, having discovered many big name bands and solo artists: Katy Perry, Kid Rock, Lorde, Matchbox 20, Stone Temple Pilots and many more. A few years back, he discovered Jens Soering and decided to help him too.
“The story itself is so compelling. It’s such a crazy human drama," he says. "I think, too, I was struck by the evidence of his innocence and the fact that he is such an extraordinary human.”
A model prisoner, Soering has written ten books behind bars and worked tirelessly to prove his innocence. He has also survived a roller coaster of emotions each time he thought he might be freed.
“He was actually granted relief by Governor Kaine, and then as he was literally packing his bags to leave prison, the new governor takes office -- McDonnell – and it was reversed. What kind of cruel fate is that?”
So Flom features Soering in an episode of his podcast, Wrongful Conviction, which appears on the ITunes home page today. He speaks with John Grisham and with Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding who spent more than 200 hours reviewomg the Soering case and concluded the man could not be convicted if he were tried today.
Soering also caught the attention of Amanda Knox, the American woman wrongfully convicted of murder by an Italian court. She, too, has a podcast and will be reporting on the Soering case, and earlier this year actor Martin Sheen sent a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch in which he called on Virginia to set Soering free.
Flom hopes all this attention will help one man who may be innocent, but he also hopes to educate the public about estimates that 4-10% of people imprisoned in this country are not guilty.
“In talking about the causes of his wrongful conviction, I think that people when they serve on juries, I hope that they’ll take into consideration how these things happen.”
And he hopes for more support of public defenders, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and similar programs the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond and a newly created project at Liberty University.