Mortal Thoughts, part I: Unreserved Admissions of Guilt

As shown previously in the post responding to Sheriff Harding’s report, Jens Soering’s later account of the Haysom murders was essentially plotted and manufactured during his extended detention in England, prior to extradition to Virginia at the beginning of 1990:

“… I wrote a document entitled “Legal Notes and Arguments” between 1987 and 1989. Over hundreds and hundreds of pages I listed evidence and explanations and arguments in strict outline format, refining and rewriting countless times.” (p. 148.)

In due course all this industry then formed the basis of a self-serving book, claimed to have been written during 1994 and placed on the internet in or around 1995 as Mortal Thoughts. At some indeterminate point in the past it was taken down from its website, but fortunately the internet has archives from which a copy could be retrieved… Some elements of the book appear to have been regurgitated, however, in Soering’s most recent publication, a collaboration with journalist Bill Sizemore called A Far, Far Better Thing.

What makes Mortal Thoughts so significant is that a careful reading shows quite clearly that it is the original source material for so many claims persisting to the present day, just accepted as true without checking and enthusiastically repeated by various ardent supporters, including David Watson, Chip Harding and many others. Careful reading of it is admittedly a tedious and laborious exercise, but it eventually repays the effort because this is where Soering can be seen to have made mistakes, sometimes unwitting and sometimes, when in a really tight corner, all but inevitable. He had to craft a totally false narrative from scratch and in the process answer a multitude of extremely difficult questions, which was always going to be a formidable task. But he had all the time he could have wanted for a venture into creative writing, and in the end it might just seem vaguely plausible to anyone reading it uncritically and willing to accept it entirely at face value. Superficially, not a bad effort in the circumstances, but still falling well short of scholarship potential.

The purpose here is to take a close look at some of the fabrications and distortions of the truth in Mortal Thoughts. However, purely as a practical matter it is impossible to detail them all – they are far too numerous and such an exercise would surely challenge everyone’s patience and endurance. Often Soering lies when there is no particular benefit to him, but the lies merely reflect the way he wishes readers to perceive certain events and people. The practice has by now become second nature.

To keep it to manageable proportions this topic will be spread over two posts. The first, below, deals only with a single issue, namely how he maintained his guilt for nearly four years before disavowing it, which is of critical importance. The second will deal with miscellaneous and sometimes random matters of detail.

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The starting point here is the confessions. By the end of 1986 Soering had confessed in some depth to English detectives Terry Wright and Ken Beever; American detective Ricky Gardner; consultant forensic psychiatrists Dr John Hamilton and Dr Henrietta Bullard; German public prosecutor Koenig and defence counsel Dr Frieser; and to his team of English lawyers. He did not in any way resile from or seek to repudiate any of those confessions until his eventual return to Virginia at the beginning of 1990.

It must be remembered that it was only upon his return to Virginia, nearly four years after his arrest, that Soering then claimed, for the very first time, that in England he had (1) confessed to the murders in order to save Elizabeth Haysom from execution, and (2) had done so in the belief that he had diplomatic immunity.

Even on what would be the most generous interpretation of events from his perspective, Soering nevertheless knew two things for sure before the end of 1986: (1) Elizabeth would be returning to Virginia voluntarily and intended to plead guilty to her subordinate role in the murders as an accessory; and that (2) he most certainly did not have diplomatic immunity – and in fact never once claimed to have it while detained in England. (Indeed, if he’d had any doubts about that at all, his own father would have very quickly disabused him of such a notion.) But still he never sought to repudiate his confessions, even when the purported reasons for them had been entirely ripped away. On the contrary, he then went on to add to them when interviewed by the German public prosecutor on 30 December 1986.

Moreover, through his distinguished counsel, Colin Nicholls QC, he stood by his confessions, affirming them in solemn judicial proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights in 1989. No recanting whatsoever. By then Haysom had long since been sentenced, of course, and any false notion of diplomatic immunity lay dead and buried in the distant past, along with his victims. These facts drive any number of tanks over his story, exposing it for what it is, but he was intelligent enough to realise the problem and so had to come up with the best rationale he could manage – “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own.”

So then why exactly did he adhere to the confessions for so long? It’s truly desperate stuff, laying bare his lack of legal knowledge, among other things, but this is how the story goes.

(All page references here are to Mortal Thoughts.)

A few weeks into 1987, he says, while in Brixton prison, London, Soering received news from his lawyers that Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Updike would be seeking his extradition for capital rather than first degree murder, intending to seek the death penalty (p. 153). (No surprise there – he had already anticipated just such a possibility in a conversation with Detective Sergeant Ken Beever many months earlier, soon after his arrest.) He claims that during that prison visit he asked his lawyers what his legal position would be if he were not guilty:

My lawyers’ eyes immediately widened in horror: Heaven forbid the possibility of my innocence! To have any hope at all of gaining a binding assurance that the death penalty would not be imposed, it was essential to maintain my complete guilt throughout the extradition proceedings. If we conceded that I might have a defence against the murder charges, the appellate judges would rule that I needed no binding assurance, because an innocent man would presumably not be convicted and executed anyway. The legal term for this was “the necessity of proving the ‘seriousness of risk’ of execution,” the attorneys explained.

So if I wanted to live no one could know that I had not killed the Haysoms…” (p. 154).

This is the point where it all begins to unravel for him like a cheap sweater. He overreaches, straying into areas about which he has far too little knowledge, thereby making the lies far too obvious. However, in the circumstances he probably had little choice but to take a chance and hope he wouldn’t get caught out in such blatant mendacity.

What he does there is to put into the mouths of his lawyers not only ethically highly dubious but also legally erroneous advice. It is curious that in other places he refers to his advising lawyers by name, but not this time. We know that they were, variously, Keith Barker (at the very beginning), Richard Spencer, Dr Graupner, Mr Gardner, Belinda Avery, Clare Montgomery (then a rising junior barrister, now a deputy High Court judge), and Colin Nicholls QC. These are all people of the utmost propriety, and Soering knew perfectly well that their duty of confidentiality and the notion of lawyer-client privilege would not stretch to the making of utterly false statements about their professional advice. Any one of them would have doubtless objected very publicly to such false assertions, so he dared not risk attributing this fabricated advice to anyone by name.

The advice he claims to have been given is so manifestly and outrageously wrong that there should scarcely be any need to say so. The very real prospect of execution, had he been returned to Virginia at that stage, was entirely down to the inherent nature of the charges he faced. That would have been so even had he proclaimed innocence from the first moment of his arrest. For sure, the case against him would have been much harder to prove, but that makes not the slightest difference to the nature of the charges and the risk he potentially faced.

To say that “appellate judges would rule that I needed no binding assurance, because an innocent man would presumably not be convicted and executed anyway” is purest tripe and demonstrates with luminous clarity how preposterous his claims become when he is forced to pitch his tent on unfamiliar territory. In other words, he fundamentally misrepresents how the process of judicial reasoning and decision-making works, making his lies all too transparent. His highly professional English lawyers would never have made such an egregious error.

Even more spectacular invention was to follow. Of course, when Mortal Thoughts was first posted online the internet was not available to the average person at home with anything resembling its almost universal reach today. At the time Soering was probably relatively safe in thinking that very few people would ever bother to check his claims. The power of a simple Google search, however, now leaves him so terribly exposed.

The legal term for this was “the necessity of proving the ‘seriousness of risk’ of execution,” the attorneys explained.”

He’s completely making it up; there is no such legal doctrine or principle. Soering has a fertile mind, but here, in his desperate attempt to justify the four-year failure to retract his confessions, it lets him down comprehensively.

To anyone who doubts this – just Google it! And then try to say he’s not lying.

In passing, it is also worthy of note that the gushing preface to Mortal Thoughts was written by Gail Starling Marshall, Attorney at Law and a former deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Did Soering’s legal nonsense really not raise serious questions about his veracity in her mind? Presumably not, which is extremely surprising.

Just as before, the risk of execution arose from the nature of the charges against him; and that risk was never at any point dependent on maintaining his confessions. He could have repudiated them at any time (or not have made them in the first place) and it would have made no difference whatsoever to the outcome of the European legal proceedings in which he was involved. That he was at some real risk of execution (or, more strictly, the “death row phenomenon”) if returned to Virginia and convicted was all that mattered, whatever he said.

But he still hadn’t finished. Long-standing wisdom suggests that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. It’s often sound advice, yet he felt the need to keep right on going.

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Not only was it essential for him to continue to affirm the confessions, Soering says, but he was also unable to share with anyone what he was doing. Why was that?

I could not tell my family or my lawyers the truth, since the visiting rooms of English Category A-inmates like myself were widely known to be bugged. I could not write a letter, because all Category A correspondence had to be turned in unsealed so the prison administration could photocopy the letters before posting. I could not even smuggle out a note during a visit: if the screws [prison staff] intercepted that one crucial letter during a search, I was dead – literally! Safety lay only in complete, total, and absolute silence. There was no one, no one at all to whom I could unburden myself.” (p. 155.)

(Strange, then, how at the same time he felt perfectly able to describe to fellow German prisoner Mathias Schroeder exactly how he had murdered the Haysoms, and had a happy smile on his face after telling the story.)

The answer to this all too convenient rubbish is an inevitable continuation of the same theme. Here Soering mixes mostly outright lies with a few half-truths in an attempt to simultaneously mislead and convince his readers, hoping to find them in a state of total ignorance and willing to believe such completely implausible fabrication.

To reiterate: he could have proclaimed innocence to the world from the prison rooftop with a megaphone and it would have made no difference to his position. He was wanted by Virginia for murder and that was all that mattered. The burden of proving his guilt at trial was on the Commonwealth, of course.

It follows that he could have spoken as frankly as he wished to his lawyers, his family members or anyone else. Indeed, visits from lawyers always take place in private rooms, and for the prison service to bug such a room would in most circumstances be a criminal offence. The more general, open-plan visiting rooms are not routinely bugged because there are simply too many visitors and too few staff for such an undertaking, and there would be no point anyway; only where the planning of serious crime is suspected might bugging be specifically authorised at a very senior level and for a specific reason, but it is extremely rare. There would never have been any such reason in Soering’s case.

Further, he had no possible need to smuggle out notes during a visit. While letters would have been read and most likely copied, they would then have been sent straight on to the intended recipients unless there was a legally compelling reason not to do so (containing threats, for instance). A protestation of innocence would not have been a reason to hold back a letter. Prisoners’ letters containing protestations of innocence are most likely commonplace. Prison staff would merely have shrugged and sent them on. Soering, to make his case, has no alternative but to pile lie upon lie upon lie.

The repetition in this post is possibly as tedious to read as it is to write. Yet it seems necessary to labour the point in order to show, without any room at all for misunderstanding, how and why Soering had to concoct this drivel. In pleading not guilty at his trial in Virginia he also had to explain why he had steadfastly maintained and affirmed his confessions for nearly four years, and this was the very best he could manage. It’s feeble, flawed and transparently dishonest – but he takes people for fools and far too often he’s been proved right.

And, uh, certainly not dead – literally!”, of course.

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By way of brief postscript it is also convenient here to mention Soering’s latest book, A Far, Far Better Thing, which appears to be in some measure a rehash of Mortal Thoughts (most likely with some of the more obvious lies removed). For some unexplained reason it is stated to contain 304 pages in its American edition but only 272 pages in the version sold in the UK. For that, anyone silly enough to buy it is expected to pay $20-25 or £18-99 respectively. Unsurprisingly it is loved by his fans, who are more than happy to throw their money at him, but mercifully not all readers are quite so gullible. A perspicacious review (17 June 2017) on Amazon.com by a verified purchaser named Thelma Jewell carries the headline, “Don’t Read This Unless You Want to Feel Scammed!” With her critical faculties fully engaged, she then continues:

I started reading this book, and it didn’t take me long to realize that the author was trying hard to manipulate his readers. He is a near-genius, guilty man telling a story of innocence in order to get out of prison. Spending time with Jens gets very tiresome. He’s a very good liar but in the end his story doesn’t add up. Sorry, but I just can’t recommend this book to anyone.”

“Near-genius” is going way too far down Hyperbole Road, but that apart Ms Jewell has summed up the position in just a few lines quite perfectly. Soering has gazed too long into the abyss: now the abyss is finally gazing back into him.

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