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Since his 1990 conviction on two first-degree counts of murder, Jens Soering has been behind bars. But now a sitting Virginia sheriff and a group of forensic experts argue Soering could not have committed the crime, based on new considerations of old evidence “discovered” right in the 1980s investigative file. (Photo: Bels116 via Wikimedia Commons)

The criminal accusations were sensational, the stuff made for TV. The son of a diplomat stood accused of slaughtering his girlfriend’s parents in their blood-streaked Virginia home because they disapproved of him. Together, the young lovers went on the lam internationally for almost a year before they were caught.

Indeed, the trial of Jens Soering was the first to take place in front of live TV cameras in the U.S., and the proceedings were seen by millions. Since his 1990 conviction on two first-degree counts of murder, Soering has been behind bars, while his erstwhile girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom has been serving time since her 1987 guilty plea to two counts of being an accessory to murder before the fact.

But now a sitting Virginia sheriff and a group of forensic experts argue Soering could not have committed the crime, based on new considerations of old evidence “discovered” right in the 1980s investigative file.

They are publicly pushing for a full pardon for the now 51-year-old man, and for his deportation back to Germany.

“He’s absolutely excluded,” said J.E. “Chip” Harding, the sheriff of Albemarle County, in a press conference Wednesday announcing their findings. “I am convinced Mr. Soering did not kill Derek and Nancy Haysom and was not present at the scene when the murders took place.”

Instead, two unknown strangers left trails of their own blood through the crime scene, the Bedford County home of the Haysoms, sometime on the evening of March 30, 1985.

SAMPLES TUCKED IN A FILE

The reevaluation of the case—and the push for a pardon of the man convicted of the killings—began with a surprising discovery, right in the investigative case file.

The murders and crime scene investigation occurred just before the advent of DNA science in the commonwealth of Virginia, which instituted its first laws in 1988.

It started with the samples taken by the serologist on the case, Mary Jane Burton, who died in 1999. The Virginia Department of Forensic Science analyst offered her opinion for the courtroom: the O-type blood that appeared on the screen door of the house matched the O-type blood of Soering.

The conviction of Soering was based in large part on that serology evidence, then widely accepted and cited in courtrooms. The prosecutor on the case, James Updike, convinced the jury that the “alien blood” found to be type O had to have come from a wounded Soering left behind in the midst of his killing of the Haysoms.

But after testifying at trial, Burton did an unusual thing. 

Instead of filing away all the samples that were collected, she put some blood samples right in the investigative file. She had done so on other cases, which have led to high-profile exonerations over the last two decades based on the DNA preserved in those small swaths.

In this case, there were 42 blood samples taken from the house. From the samples preserved by Burton the DNA experts were able to cull 11 partial profiles. All of them had less than 16 CODIS loci, since the genetic material had deteriorated without proper preservation.

But those partial samples were exculpatory, said the experts revisiting the case. Instead, it shows two men were bleeding in that house where the two Haysom bodies were found, they added.

The “alien” O blood on the screen door handle was not Soering’s—and was determined to be from another man as early as 2009, the investigators contend.

“The DNA’s not wrong,” said Richard L. Hudson, a retired Charlottesville homicide detective who consulted on the case. “There’s two strangers bleeding in that crime scene.”

The two blood samples in question are not mixtures, and show two unknown men: AB-type blood on the kitchen counter top and the threshold of the front door—and that O-type blood of the unknown man that was identified as Soering in 1990.

The DNA experts who were consulted on the case were Moses Schanfield of the George Washington University, and J. Thomas McClintock, of the Virginia-based DNA Diagnostics, Inc.

Albermarle County (Virginia) Sheriff J.E. "Chip" Harding is calling for the release of convicted murderer Jens Soering after new DNA evidence suggests two other men may have committed the double-murder Soering was convicted of. (Photo: Courtesy of Chip Harding)

RELUCTANCE TO OPEN A CLOSED CASE

Harding, the Albemarle County sheriff, was never involved in the official investigation of the Haysom murders. However, he has developed a national profile over two decades through his advocacy for better forensic science. (He has told Forensic Magazine in previous interviews that better science means better outcomes in the American justice system.)

Harding and his team of forensic investigators on the case announced at the Wednesday press conference that they had initially attempted to hold a meeting with Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown and his chief deputy, Major Ricky Gardner. (Gardner was the lead investigator in the initial criminal investigation in the 1980s.)

Gardner told Forensic Magazine in a statement that he was cooperating with the the Virginia state investigator tapped with following up on Soering pardon petition. But he said he remains convinced Soering and Haysom were culpable in the deaths.

"No one wants to see an innocent person convicted of a crime they didnt' commit," Gardner said in the statement. "However, i do not feel that is the case with Jens Soering. As I have said for years, I remain confident that Mr. Soering and Ms. Haysom are the only two people who benefited from the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Haysom and are the only two people responsible for their deaths. In fact, Ms. Haysom still maintains their guilt in her parents' deaths to this day."

Harding did have a meeting with Bedford’s commonwealth attorney, Wes Nance, in which the Albemarle sheriff asked for the prosecutor to re-open the case. However, Nance responded three weeks later after meeting with Gardner—and declined the request, according to Harding.

Harding has most recently requested a pardon for Jens Soering from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, by letter earlier this month, and before the press conference.

Forensic Magazine left a message for the governor’s press office seeking comment.

Harding and his team further make their arguments that Elizabeth Haysom confessed to killing her parents early on in the investigation—and that the eventual confessions from both her and Soering had conflicting accounts of how both Haysom parents were killed. Those confessions, they argue, only further bolster Soering’s claims of innocence.

Hudson, who stated in his letter to the governor that he is a conservative Republican and doesn’t “generally think releasing criminals from the penitentiary is a good idea,” nevertheless believes the wrong man was convicted, he told reporters Wednesday.

“Here we are (…) 32 years later—he’s still locked up, and nobody’s listening,” said Hudson.

The Virginia Parole Board last rejected Soering’s bid for freedom in March. 

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