Officials have designated this “Second Chance Month” for about 37,000 state prisoners. Those who committed their crimes before 1995 are eligible for parole, and Virginia has been freeing about 12% of them each year, but one high profile prisoner says he hasn’t even gotten a first chance.
In 1986, prosecutors charged a first-year honors student at the University of Virginia with killing his girlfriend’s parents – stabbing them to death in their rural home near Lynchburg. Jens Soering was in love with Elizabeth Haysom, a beautiful but troubled woman with a history of abuse. She had often said she hated her parents and wished them dead. Soering claims he confessed to the crime to protect her.
“Virginia had the electric chair, and they were using it frequently," he explains. "I was terrified that the woman I loved was going to die a horrible death unless I saved her.”
The son of a low-level German diplomat, Soering thought he would be deported and tried in a country that rarely puts young killers away for life. In fact, he did not have diplomatic immunity and was prosecuted in Virginia.
“The prosecutor reminded the jury 26 times that there was type O blood at the crime scene, and he said that the only person involved in this crime who had type O blood was Jens Soering,” he says.
But a few years ago, type O blood from the crime scene was DNA tested, and experts concluded it came from another man – not Soering. AB blood thought to have come from Elizabeth Haysom’s mother actually came from a man – so two men, never identified by police, were apparently at the scene.
Soering also tracked down an FBI profile that was never shared with the jury – an analysis produced by veteran detective Ed Sulzbach.
“He came up with a suspect profile that said it was a white female who was in a close relationship to the victims," says Soering. " Ed Sulzbach said, 'I settled on the daughter,' meaning my girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom."
But as Virginia begins Second Chance Month, Soering is starting his 34th year behind bars. He blames politics, noting Republicans have used his case to burnish their tough-on-crime credentials, while Democrats have been unwilling to provoke the party that controls the General Assembly.
“Terry McAuliffe gave you an interview in which he said that wrongful convictions were terribly important to him, and he was really concerned and he would do the right thing,” Soering recalls.
But McAuliffe left office without taking action, and Governor Ralph Northam says he’s waiting for a report from the parole board – a report that has been pending for nearly three years. Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, insists this is not a matter of politics.
“It was a very serious crime of nature – double murder," Moran explains. "It is receiving a full and comprehensive and thorough review. There’s a lot of evidence. A decision will be made devoid of politics.”
In truth, the governor gets 15 to 20 requests for a pardon each month, and with only one lawyer and six investigators working part-time, parole board chief Adrianne Bennett admits there’s a backlog. She apologized to a crowd at Old Dominion University, explaining “We’re trying to fix the system.”
Soering is also eligible for parole, early release provided when, in Bennett’s words, a person can be safely welcomed back into the community. Soering seems like a good bet.
“I’ve spent 33 years in prison without getting a single institutional infraction," he says. "I’ve had ten books published, so I haven’t been wasting my time in here, and if they were to grant me parole I would be deported to Germany and could never come back.”
Still, the parole board has cited the seriousness of his crime in refusing him parole 14 times. In our next report, we’ll tell you who is getting out and what happens when inmates are paroled.