A Letter from Martin Sheen

Martin Sheen is a very fine actor, which is precisely where his expertise ends. The strong impression from a distance is that he is probably also a sincere and decent man, but not the first to be fooled by Jens Soering. Fame gives his uninformed opinion about the Soering case no added authority whatever. His professional life involves creating high quality, entertaining fantasies, and on this occasion he has allowed the fantasy to spill over into real life.

In his letter of 10 January 2019 to the Richmond Times-Dispatch (alternative link here), Sheen has nothing new to say, which is hardly a surprise. He merely reiterates some of the familiar talking points, along with the usual miscellany of error, bias and misapprehension. In yet another perfect example of the GIGO principle (garbage in: garbage out), we read in the letter that he has studied the case for 12 years. Perhaps he has; but when his study material is drawn selectively from Soering’s own profoundly dishonest account of events, then everything resulting from that – the output – will inevitably be garbage.

The rules of natural justice are quite simple, one of them being to hear the other side in any dispute (“audi alteram partem”). Martin Sheen seemingly wishes to dispense with that annoying precept because he has already reached his own conclusions. Is it not distinctly possible that the Virginia authorities may also have something of relevance to say on this subject? So far they’ve been very quiet, but are unlikely to remain so indefinitely.

Let’s take a look at what Sheen actually says.

MS: “With the start of the new year… Jens Soering will begin his 34th year behind bars…”

He was arrested in April 1986, meaning he hasn’t yet completed 33 years.

Further, a year of that time was an unrelated sentence in England for fraud. Nearly three years more was spent resisting extradition to the United States. He did not begin his sentence in Virginia until 1990.

MS: “Soering was an 18-year-old German exchange student…”

No, he really wasn’t an exchange student. But what’s fascinating here is that the identical error was made in the script of the Hausman/Hudson piece discussed in the last post. How curious! It’s not Aaron Sorkin writing the lines this time, that’s for sure.

MS: “Since his trial in 1990, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence.”

Uh, yes, he has. Here we go again – it’s time for some more copy and paste.

In the four years between his arrest and eventual extradition to Virginia in 1990, Soering confessed in detail or acknowledged his guilt without reservation to –

English detectives Terry Wright and Ken Beever;

American detective Ricky Gardner;

his team of English lawyers;

fellow German prisoner Mathias Schroeder;

psychiatrists Dr John Hamilton and Dr Henrietta Bullard;

a German prosecutor from Bonn, Herr Koenig;

his German defence counsel, Dr Frieser;

the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, London;

the Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court;

the European Commission of Human Rights;

the European Court of Human Rights.

He did not claim to be innocent until 1990, five years after committing the murders and four years after his arrest. During that time he manufactured a totally false story in order to plead not guilty at his Virginia trial, and he has maintained those lies since then.

Soering can’t delete this record, however much he’d like to. Nor can Martin Sheen.

MS: “DNA tests concluded that blood at the crime scene (long believed to be Soering’s) was in fact left by another man…”

The DNA results were reviewed by scientists acting for Soering, well paid for doing so, and they came up with their own highly tendentious interpretation of the evidence that was, even then, far more fragile than he and his team like to admit. And it was only one side of the equation. Once again, we’re entitled to assume that the Commonwealth will also have checked the results carefully and will have its own view. Audi alteram partem.

There is no reason to believe that Sheen is anything other than an intelligent, if gullible, man, and he cannot have been wholly unaware of the ABC network’s 20/20 broadcast of 15 February 2018. Even before we learn what Virginia has to say, ABC commissioned its own independent review by one of America’s leading DNA experts, Professor Dan Krane. In his view:

“There’s no indication that Jens Soering was present at the crime scene, but I think we can also say that there’s no affirmative indication of anybody other than the victims being present at the crime scene as well.”

That little inconvenience has to be ignored, however, and Soering’s people just carry on saying the same old things regardless. Dan who? Never heard of him!

MS: “[The pardon] petition has gained the support of five law enforcement officers who believe in his innocence (one of whom was the senior detective at the time of the crime)…”

The main two being Chip Harding and Chuck Reid. Dave Watson, it should be said, gives every indication of having left the party.

There is little to be added about Chip Harding and his scurrilous, error-strewn, deeply partisan report that hasn’t been said before. Indeed, he merited a long post all to himself a year ago. It should be noted that his report remains publicly uncorrected, and to put it before the Governor is disgraceful.

Chuck Reid and his changes of story have been examined here on several occasions, most notably in the Harding post and in The Profile and the Press Conference. Reid seems to have forgotten that he has a long record, by means of which we can easily compare what he says now with what he said at earlier points in this saga. So, for example, in the 2016 Killing for Love film he claims that he always doubted Soering’s guilt:

“I’ll never forget sitting in my office that day, that Sunday that Ricky and I was interviewing him; in my mind I’m thinking to myself, this boy, there’s no way this little boy could’ve done something like that.”

And yet in 2011, in On the Case, he expressed no doubts at all about the identity of the Haysoms’ murderer, even while also airing his own prejudice:

“Elizabeth wanted them gone. She found an individual who she could manipulate and use to do her deeds for her…

And unfortunately, Jens, he was just madly in love with a girl he thought that really cared for him. She played him for a fool ’cause she knew that all she had to do was plant a little seed and back off and then pretend, OK, I was just joking about this, but in her own mind knowing he’s gonna do it.”

Those are far from being the only examples, and none of them leave Reid looking like a man of unimpeachable integrity.

There is one instance where he gets a little bit of credit, however, and it’s not completely without passing amusement value. Martin Sheen is by implication referring to Chuck Reid as being the senior detective at the time. The claim is made repeatedly and relentlessly by all of Soering’s supporters that Reid was the lead investigator. He wasn’t, and it’s said solely with the underlying purpose of denigrating his former partner, Ricky Gardner. But even Reid himself doesn’t make that claim:

“I was one of the lead investigators on the Haysom murder case.”

Chuck Reid, letter to Governor Terry McAuliffe, 19 October, 2017.

Nevertheless, Sheen is walking into quicksand when he puts his faith in the purported views of any of these people.

MS: “…the petition is still undergoing review after more than two years…”

That’s true, and it’s a long time. But there were others in the queue before Jens Soering, which meant that he had to wait his turn. The support of a famous actor didn’t propel him to the front of that queue, nor should it have.

The nature of the game here will be apparent to everyone. The obvious hope is that importing a celebrity will sprinkle stardust over the process and bring with it a frisson of excitement derived from Hollywood glamour, thereby impressing all the local yokels (as Soering sees them). It certainly impresses the devoted matrons of Facebook, no doubt about that, but whether it will have quite the same effect on the Virginia authorities is a different matter entirely.

We’ll just have to wait and see.