The Confessions

Jens Soering’s many confessions have already been highlighted in the last post, below. Since then, however, there have been further interventions in the case by, among others, Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding, Dr Andrew Griffiths, and journalist Bill Sizemore, co-author of Soering’s latest book. It will be necessary to have a careful look at the conclusions of all these people in the fullness of time, but for now it’s important to return to the confessions.

Perhaps, in the present circumstances, it was thought that Soering’s claims of innocence would be bolstered by the support of an interrogation expert. Step forward Dr Andrew Griffiths, retired detective and, in the words of Bill Sizemore, “probably the foremost authority on police interrogations, possibly in the world.” Goodness, in the world! So we can look forward to something duly authoritative here.

Lauren Berg, The Daily Progress, 17 October 2017:

 “At a news conference Friday, Andrew Griffiths, a retired detective superintendent from Essex, England, said inconsistencies in the confession and the fact that Soering quickly recanted it, should have rendered it useless in court.

“I looked at the consistency of what he said conpared to other evidence at the crime scene, based on the fact he had recanted his confession almost as soon as he had made it, really, Griffith said.

“I concluded that his confession was unreliable and could not be viewed as a valid confession that could convict him,” he said.”

Hmm, “recanted his confession almost as soon as he had made it.” Strong stuff – but it is Griffiths who should be recanting because his assertion is entirely wrong. Soering’s multiple confessions were never recanted – quite the opposite – until he arrived back in Virginia nearly four years later. And which particular confession is unreliable?

Was it the confessions to the English and American detectives?

Or the confessions to forensic psychiatrists Dr John Hamilton (report of 11 December 1986) and Dr Henrietta Bullard (report of 15 December 1986)?

Or the acknowledgements of guilt to his team of English lawyers and the European Court of Human Rights?

Or the confession to the German public prosecutor and his German lawyer?

*

The latter occurred on 30 December 1986, eight months to the day after his arrest. Jens Soering was interviewed at Chelmsford prison in England by a public prosecutor from Bonn, Germany, and the transcript extends to 43 typed pages. Before the interview he was able to meet privately with his German defence counsel, Dr Frieser, who was then present throughout. The interview was conducted in German and then translated rather literally into English, thus making it sound highly disjointed in places.

By this time Soering knew only too well that Elizabeth Haysom, deeply shocked by the horrifying photographs of his handiwork in her extradition file, would be returning voluntarily to Virginia and intended to plead guilty to her subordinate role in the crimes. Any suggestion, therefore, that he lied to protect her was transparent and demonstrable nonsense, as was his risible later claim of believing that he had diplomatic immunity. But again he confessed.

The prosecutor began by reminding Soering of his rights:

As an accused you have the right to refuse to give evidence. You need not make any statement here…”

As with previous confessions, Soering was at times evasive and at times self-contradictory. He knew at that point that potentially he still faced execution in Virginia and, with that in mind, sought to distance himself from any idea that the murders were premeditated.

His strategy, seen clearly throughout the interview, was not to deny the killings as such, but instead to attempt to rebut the element of prior intent evidenced by the taking of the knife with him. Nevertheless, while studiously avoiding the issue of the knife’s provenance, he cautiously began to answer the questions put to him about the murders.

Soering: “I am not quite sure, one hundred percent sure, that I have murdered [the Haysoms]…” [page 9]

I think, there remains a few pictures of this evening [of the murders] here and there, let us say, which I can remember. In between there are quite enormous gaps, and partly there is something missing within the pictures itself.” [13]

I believe the whole affair from the arrival until the respective attack passed in about 20 to 30 minutes… That was all within 20, 30 minutes I would estimate, but it is very very difficult to say. I mean, I can remember the whole affair only very, very poorly.” [17]

Soering then recounts a verbal quarrel among the three of them with raised voices, which eventually resulted in his being pushed by Derek Haysom and bumping his head against a wall in the house.

Soering: “… the next thing I can remember is, that I stood behind Mr Haysom and then blood ran from the neck into the lap and that I was incredibly shocked. I can not really describe it, I simply could not grasp it.”

Prosecutor: “What could you not grasp?”

Soering: “That I stood there with the knife in the hand. He had blood running into his lap. I don’t know whether I have stabbed him in the neck, or cut down along the neck. I am of the opinion that this must have been something like it.” [18]

Prosecutor: “From where had you the knife?”

Soering: “This is a question which I also have not answered to the American Officer. I also want it here to remain unanswered.”

Prosecutor: “I know for what reason you want it. You think of a premeditated crime. That is what it amounts to!”

Soering: “Yes.” [19]

Soering: “In any event I remember that, I think it is possible that the fight lasted less than 1 minute. In my memory it appear to be like half an hour, because I myself had absolutely no knowledge how I got into this situation and what I did there…” [20]

Prosecutor: “Did you somehow injure the woman?”

Soering: “Yes, of course. Eventually and finally, I injured Mrs Haysom too at her neck. I say injured because there was all of a sudden no resistance on her part…” [21]

Soering: “I remembered later and in June that I drove afterwards to a rubbish container about 1 m [mile] away and that I then returned to the house… I was bleeding so much and I thought it was absolutely essential to drive back to find something to bandage the hand. Furthermore all lights were on in the house and I was afraid that somebody would notice it during the next day and then go there to examine whether there was light and also the door was open and all such things. Anyway I have thought it over that I had to return. In any event I think I can remember that. I drove back. I can tell you that I have two vague memories of the bodies…” [21-22]

Prosecutor: “How did it then go on when you were on the way to Washington? What about Elizabeth?”

Soering: “Elizabeth was in Washington when I arrived, she was in the street.” [23]

Soering: “I can only say that I personally have not much confidence in my own memory. I think we can discuss the matter about the knife at a later stage. I had no intent to kill those people and it was an absolute horror experience and I can remember very little and what I can remember of this weekend is all very vague.” [26]

Defence counsel: “Did Elizabeth know something of the act when she met you in Washington? Something she could have only known if she had been there herself?”

Soering: “No, not in any event that I can remember. But, as already said, there too is it so. I can remember only her shocked face when she got into the car…” [27]

Soering: “I believe it was quite right that I hated the parents more and more… I would say that in the last month before this happened, there were talks, not very detailed, which arose from the feeling of hate. Man, we must really put them into a car and let them roll down the hill. The matter with these conversations was that I, in any event, did not take them seriously and it is for this, that I also said that I did not drive to Lynchburg with the intent to kill these people… Violence was strange to my character, but I have hated these people also very much and these feelings of hate I have expressed in conversations through fantasy games, as for example one should put them into a car and push them down a hill. Something with a remote controlled bomb, burn the house down…” [30]

Prosecutor: “You are supposed to have said that you felt during the trip to Lynchburg hatred and anger for the later victims, the parents of your girlfriend, because they exercised pressure on your girlfriend to end the relationship. Is that so?”

Soering: “That is right without doubt. But this concerns a general feeling which was building up in me anyway over months…” [32]

Prosecutor: “Can one establish that you anyhow had some kind of knife with you? Considering that it is quite customary to carry guns in the U.S.A., I assume, you had the knife with you no matter for which purpose ever.”

Soering: “Can’t we leave that?”

Prosecutor: “I don’t know, I leave it at your discretion.”

Defence counsel: “If you don’t want to say anything to this, we leave it then. We will establish that he does not know with which knife he injured Mr Haysom.”

Soering: “I have in fact injured him with a knife.” [35]

Prosecutor: “Once more briefly back to it… Now I don’t understand how it got to the act with the knife. Where ever did the knife come from?”

Soering: “I think, I am now 7 or 8 months here in prison. I basically started to think about it only in the last few months, because until now I tried to forget the affair. I have discussed this with various people for example also with the psychiatrist, I think, if I had remembered more, I would have been able to tell this in the meantime. I only know that I came away from the wall with a tremendous rage.”

Prosecutor: “Did you feel humiliated by Mr Haysom or was it more your fury that you did not get any further? Was it a fury having been treated like a small child, or a fury for not being up to the situation anymore?”

Soering: “In reality it is both… A collective rage arose which resulted from the situation which was already months if not years old. That all erupted now.” [35-36]

Soering: “As already said, I came from the wall with a horrific rage in me and the next thing I remember is that I stood behind him and the total shock and terror that this blood was there in his lap.” [37]

Soering: “The way I see it, to say it cruelly, for many years certain problems have built-up inside me… and that because of the alcohol all these things erupted and the entire anger and all these problems were discharged.” [41]

Soering: “… I can not remember with which knife I injured them. With which knife I have injured them, I believe anyway that this was their knife.” [42]

Prosecutor: “I think we can conclude the interview with this if you have no more questions Dr Frieser. Scotland Yard will produce a copy of this tape which we can take to Germany where it will be transcribed for our files…” [42]

*

So as 1986 came to a close Soering was still confessing and acknowledging his responsibility for the murders. Certainly no sign of any quick recant there.

Nor was there any hint of a recant on 16 December 1986 and 30 January 1987 when his then lawyer, Dr Graupner, made representations to the Secretary of State that the order to the magistrate to proceed with the arrest of Jens Soering should have been made for the offence of manslaughter and not murder. He referred, in particular, to the opinion expressed in medical evidence that Soering was suffering from a mental condition which would justify a verdict at trial that he was not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. The Secretary of State rejected Dr. Graupner’s submissions in letters of 12 February 1987 and 9 April 1987.

Lawyers, of course, act only on clients’ instructions about the facts. Had Soering been proclaiming innocence that would necessarily have been reflected in Dr Grauper’s representations and submissions.

At his committal proceedings before the chief magistrate, Soering adduced psychiatric evidence from consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Bullard that he was suffering from a “folie à deux”, and that such a mental condition substantially impaired his responsibility for his acts, which under English law would constitute a defence of diminished responsibility, reducing the offence from murder to manslaughter.

He had also previously been assessed by Dr John Hamilton, medical director of Broadmoor Hospital, who, in a report dated 11 December 1986, stated:

“I therefore believe that at the time of the homicides Jens Soering was suffering from an abnormality of mind in which the predominant feature was an impaired appreciation of reality in this circumscribed but crucial area. It is my opinion that at the time he was suffering from such an abnormality of mind (arising from disease of the mind) as to substantially impair his mental responsibility for his acts. Were he to be tried for the homicides in England I would be prepared to give evidence that he suffered from diminished responsibility in terms of section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957 and that he should therefore be liable to conviction for manslaughter rather than murder.”

Just for the moment Soering’s state of mind is irrelevant. What is relevant is that he had fully acknowledged his responsibility for killing the Haysoms to both his lawyers and his psychiatrists, in addition to the police. His potential liability for those actions lay under the law of Virginia, not England, therefore a partial defence under English law was not an issue for the court, as the chief magistrate properly found. No such defence was available in Virginia.

Eventually the legal proceedings moved on, first to the European Commission of Human Rights, which, following deliberations and final vote on the application, formally adopted the decision on 19 January 1989. The case was then released to the plenary Court.

Brief details of proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights were covered in a previous post, The Many Lies of Jens Soering. There he was fortunate to be represented by a team of lawyers led by Colin Nicholls QC, a barrister pre-eminent in the fields of war crimes and extradition, among others.

“First of all, Nicholls maintained, if Jens were extradited to Virginia there was a very good chance that he would wind up on death row. ‘He has confessed to the murders,’ Nicholls pointed out. ‘And the circumstances of the killings strongly indicate that the jury and judge will find them sufficiently vile to result in the applicant being sentenced to death.’

“Once he arrived on death row, Nicholls continued, Jens could expect to remain there for eight years or more until his appeals were exhausted. ‘The applicant was eighteen years and four months old at the time of the killings [Note: he was actually 18 years and 8 months old]. At the time of the execution, if the proceedings run their course, he will be approximately thirty…'”

(Extract taken from Beyond Reason by Ken Englade. St Martin’s Press, 1990.)

In its judgment of 7 July 1989 the Court ruled in Soering’s favour by 19 votes to 0, thereby saving him from almost certain execution. And in solemn judicial proceedings before the highest human rights body in Europe he had once again acknowledged murdering the Haysoms. With no equivocation and absolutely no recanting, he admitted committing the murders, just as he had to the police officers, the various lawyers and the psychiatrists.

So not until 1990, upon his long-anticipated return to Virginia, did Soering first recant his multiple confessions, having by then had four years to confect a heart-rending tale of innocence for the gullible and the credulous.

                                                       *

Strangely, Andrew Griffiths’ full report does not appear to have been uploaded to the internet, which is disappointing, but perhaps sight of it is reserved for those who paid him for his trouble. In any event, there is no reason not to believe that his conclusions were reached in good faith. Accepting that, however, does not imply the slightest obligation not to disagree with him profoundly.

Now that Griffiths’ principal public assertion that Soering quickly recanted his confession has been shown to be plainly wrong, what remains? 

Ah, “inconsistencies in the confession.” But inconsistencies in which of the many confessions mentioned above?

Jens Soering is no doubt very bright. It is also axiomatic that he has lied and lied and lied, either in England or Virginia; he is by any standards a proven and highly experienced liar. If we rule out any thought of actual innocence (as we should) it is entirely plausible that he consciously inserted fallacious points of detail into his statements to give himself room for manoeuvre at a later stage. A likely example would be his carefully tentative answer to the question when interviewed of what Nancy Haysom was wearing: “I think Ms Haysom was wearing jeans.” And similarly the claim at his trial that “… I got the position of the bodies confused because I wasn’t in Lynchburg” (Killing For Love). Certainly he could be seen to be shifting his ground over time, hedging and trying to direct a greater share of responsibility away from himself. But no big surprise there.

At the same time, however, and just as likely in respect of parts of his account, he may well have been answering some of the questions as best he could (clear and persistent evasiveness about the knife notwithstanding). As a young man of 18 he had murdered two people in the most savage and brutal way possible; it was violent, frenzied and, regardless of his undoubted criminal culpability, it must also have been hugely traumatic, leaving his mind spinning in absolute turmoil. Indeed, everything he and his psychiatrists said supports this proposition.

It doesn’t take a professor of neuroscience to appreciate that memories can be flawed. And where memory was concerned, Soering’s, by his own admission, was obviously very far from good, as demonstrated already in the interview with the German prosecutor.

To recap a few examples:

Soering: “I can only say that I can not remember exactly what happened in Washington itself this weekend. [Page 11]

I think, there remains a few pictures of this evening [of the murders] here and there, let us say, which I can remember. In between there are quite enormous gaps, and partly there is something missing within the pictures itself.” [13]

I mean, I can remember the whole affair only very, very poorly.” [17]

In any event I remember that, I think it is possible that the fight lasted less than 1 minute. In my memory it appear to be like half an hour, because I myself had absolutely no knowledge how I got into this situation and what I did there…” [20]

I can tell you only that I have two vague memories of the bodies.” [22]

What happened then I can hardly still remember.” [22]

I can only say that I personally have not much confidence in my own memory… I had no intent to kill those people and it was an absolute horror experience and I can remember very little and what I can remember of this weekend is all very vague.” [26]

As already said, I came from the wall with a horrific rage in me and the next thing I remember is that I stood behind him and the total shock and terror that this blood was there in his lap.” [37]

Prosecutor: “Who actually took the car back afterwards? You two together? Or only she?”

Soering: “No idea.” [40]

… I can not remember with which knife I injured them. With which knife I have injured them, I believe anyway that this was their knife.” [42]

*

And, when facing the death penalty people are rather more inclined to say whatever might seem to be to their greatest advantage at a particular time.

Andrew Griffiths is entitled to his personal opinion about the reliability or otherwise of the confessions. However, he is not remotely entitled to decide that they could not be viewed as valid confessions entirely capable of leading to a safe conviction. That, initially, is a matter for a properly qualified judge, certainly not for him.

In all the circumstances, the chances, then or now, of any court finding the confessions in Soering’s case unreliable, thereby leading to their exclusion, rest somewhere between vanishingly small and totally non-existent, and it would be fatuous to pretend otherwise. Given the quantity, quality and sources of the various confessions, the issue just wouldn’t arise for serious consideration. The probative value ultimately then becomes a matter for the jury to decide, of course, as it was in the Circuit Court of Bedford County.

*

The Schroeder Letters

There is also something of a postscript to the many confessions. While in prison in Ashford, England, Soering got to know a fellow German called Mathias Schroeder, who was himself serving a short sentence, and gave him an account of what had happened.

“Cell confessions”, so called, have come to be viewed with suspicion for quite understandable reasons, the more so when there might be some advantage to the person repeating what he claims to have been told (a shorter sentence or enhanced privileges, for example). In this case, however, Schroeder was writing some years later when he was home in Germany and had nothing whatever to gain. He had seen Soering’s later cries of innocence and simply wanted the truth to be known, and the account of the crimes Soering privately gave him was consistent with his earlier admissions to the police and others.

Schroeder wrote to Elizabeth Haysom, the Governor of Virginia and the Parole Board with this information in 2005 (and sent a subsequent letter to Haysom in 2008). Unfortunately it is not possible to post the letters here for legal reasons. As a matter of basic intellectual property law Schroeder owns the copyright, and it would therefore be wrong to publish them without his consent, express or implied. It should be noted, however, that various journalists in Virginia also have copies of these letters. To date not one has chosen to mention them, which eloquently tells its own story.

What he said is that he was with Soering in Ashford prison for about seven weeks. When they had become better acquainted Schroeder asked Soering whether he knew what the press had said about him. He said, “you mean if I have killed the parents from my girlfriend, of course I did.” Soering recounted in great detail what had happened. He said that when he went to their home he had not completely decided to kill the Haysoms but didn’t exclude it and was prepared to do so. He described the fight, the attacks with the knife, and stated that Derek Haysom was much stronger than he had expected. Soering cut himself while stabbing Mr Haysom to the body. He made sure both were dead before he left the house.

Schroeder says that after telling the story Soering had a smile of happiness all over his face. He adds, perceptively, together with his intelligence, [Jens] always finds a way to distract one from the original facts and leads the listeners to another reality.”

So nothing changes.

*

The last thought here should go to Chuck Reid, one of the original investigators of the Haysom murders, who has at some point in the past undergone a Damascene-like conversion to the Soering cause, and is now apparently a true believer.

Nevertheless, it was Reid who summarised Soering’s enduring predicament with great economy in Killing For Love:

75% of the people that are in jail today, their mouth put ’em there. It’s not the evidence, it’s their mouth, and that’s exactly what put Jens where he’s at.”

Probably so. But most of them don’t then dishonestly seek to retract, repudiate and effectively rewrite everything they said, in nauseating detail, four years later.

* * *