Admittedly rather late, this post will be a detailed examination of the Virginia Parole Board’s decision in November 2019 to grant Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom parole together. The decision had been delayed far longer than anyone expected and it became widely believed that there would be no announcement until early in 2020. That being so, just the timing, let alone the outcome, came as a shock to most of us.
In effect the announcement was composed of three decisions in one. Two of those were fully expected by everyone who followed events closely, and the third struck like a bolt of lightning on a calm, sunny day.
The two fully expected decisions were these:
(1) Jens Soering’s pardon petition was refused by the Governor. The entire basis for the application was preposterous from the beginning because his claims were manifestly lacking any substance and his guilt never in doubt.
(2) Elizabeth Haysom would be granted parole without further delay. Given her sentence and all the surrounding circumstances (discussed below), her release was many years overdue and her continued incarceration was way beyond any reasonable justification. Moreover, it is common knowledge that her sister and two of her brothers travelled in person to the Parole Board in 2017 to ask for her release. Yet no decision was made either way; it was constantly deferred. The Board kept her until the very last minute, at which point it was running out of other viable options.
(Just for the record – once again – it needs to be said that there was never any kind of plea deal with prosecutor Jim Updike. It is no more than another self-serving lie from Soering’s mouth and repeated ad nauseam by his team, in particular Chip Harding and Steven Rosenfield. That has already been pointed out here in the past, and is also covered in the Wright Report at pages 384-5.)
The third decision, of course, was to grant Jens Soering parole at the same time as Elizabeth Haysom, which almost nobody expected – and for very good reasons. Indeed, even journalist Laura Vozzella, whose close ties to the Soering campaign always undermined the credibility of her reporting, didn’t see it coming, as she wrote in The Washington Post on 26 November 2019:
“RICHMOND — Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom, onetime classmates and lovers at the University of Virginia convicted decades ago in her parents’ brutal killing, have won release from prison.
The surprise decision Monday by the Virginia Parole Board slapped a coda on a 1985 murder mystery that rocked the state and drew national attention, long before tabloid television turned sensational crimes into regular fare.”
Soering’s principal lawyer at the time also claimed to USA Today that he was kept in the dark:
“Soering’s lawyer, Steven Rosenfield, said he had not received notice of the parole board’s decision and declined further comment.”
It’s impossible to know whether that’s really true. Rosenfield has a history of lying without hesitation when it suits him.
But regardless, the probable outcome was explained to Elizabeth Haysom some 11 days earlier – even before Board members had voted on the matter! The fix was taking shape.
The Press Release
To begin unravelling what occurred it’s best to return to the press release issued on 25 November 2019 by Parole Board chairwoman Adrianne Bennett:
“Today the Parole Board has made an unfavorable recommendation to the Governor for Jens Soering’s request for an absolute pardon. The years-long exhaustive investigation for a genuine search for the truth revealed that Jens Soering’s claims of innocence are without merit.
The Parole Board has determined that releasing Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to their ICE deportation detainers is appropriate based on their youth at the time of the offenses, institutional adjustment and their length of incarceration.
They are both now in their mid-50’s and have served over 33 years for the horrific crimes that they committed. Their release and permanent expulsion from the United States is a tremendous cost benefit to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia and we have determined that their release does not pose a risk to public safety.
Sheriff Mike Brown and Major Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department and the Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance have at all times demonstrated professionalism and we are grateful for their transparency during this lengthy investigation.”
The first thing to note there is how Bennett skips lightly past the “years-long exhaustive investigation” in a single sentence, which is extraordinary. She’s right that a long and exhaustive investigation was conducted by Board investigators, no doubt about it, and the appropriate conclusion was reached.
Nevertheless, this was an exceptionally high profile case with many interested parties. Normally it would be routine for a quasi-judicial body to provide detailed reasons for its findings in such a case, or at the very least some kind of executive summary covering perhaps 5-6 pages. In addition to the work of its own experienced investigators, the Board had at its disposal the mammoth Wright Report. This is never mentioned, leaving Virginia residents with just one explanatory sentence. That cannot be an accident.
In all the circumstances it was impossible for the Parole Board to recommend a pardon to the Governor. Soering’s claims of innocence had not the slightest merit, so any notion of a sneaky little pardon would have been politically (and potentially legally) ruinous for everyone concerned, as they would have known. In that respect some problems just can’t be fixed. The next-best thing they could do for him was to pass over the facts and the mountain of evidence in a single sentence, and that’s what they did.
The Parole Board Determination’s Lack of Integrity
It’s necessary to look at the Board’s public statement in some detail because the determination verges on infantile in its attempt to justify the unjustifiable and disguise the reality behind a grossly improper decision.
The Board opted to release Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom on parole at the same time, the statement says, on the basis of –
“their youth at the time of the offenses, institutional adjustment and their length of incarceration.”
That is a pretext, serving to camouflage the decision they were intent on making. It glosses over four crucial factors:
1. Length of incarceration
Whatever the length of time served – whether 23, 33 or 43 years is not the issue here – it has to be without precedent for the perpetrator of serious crimes (Soering) to serve no longer than an accessory (Haysom), in opposition to standard sentencing practice. This runs alongside the principle that an early guilty plea will invariably attract a lesser sentence than a plainly dishonest not guilty plea necessitating a full trial.
As early as 1 April 1990, long before Soering’s trial began in June, conjecture was appearing in the media that he may try to shift the blame for the murders onto Elizabeth Haysom, to the evident surprise of a reporter from The Roanoke Times:
“Until recently, there was little question about Elizabeth Haysom’s whereabouts on the weekend her parents were slashed to death five years ago.
Haysom’s account, accepted by prosecutors, has been that she waited in Washington, D.C., while her boyfriend, Jens Soering, drove to her parents’ home in Boonsboro on the eastern edge of Bedford County.
In Soering’s murder trial, Haysom’s testimony is expected to play a central role in attempting to prove the prosecution’s theory that it was Soering who killed Derek and Nancy Haysom the night of March 30, 1985. But Soering’s attorneys may challenge her story.
Soering’s attorneys have yet to spell out their strategy. They have, however, hinted at one possible theory they may try to argue: That Elizabeth Haysom – not Soering – killed her parents.
At first look, the theory may seem hard for a jury to swallow.”
The reporter’s assessment there was entirely correct.
2. The sentences
The statement takes no account whatsoever of their respective charges – she was not ultimately charged with murder – and the sentences imposed by Judge Sweeney, nor the three mitigating factors he identified in Elizabeth Haysom’s favour. Soering received two life sentences: she did not.
“[Judge Sweeney] cited three mitigating factors that affected his sentencing decision – that Haysom was not charged with physically killing her parents, that she waived extradition from Britain and pleaded guilty against her lawyers’ advice, and the mixed feelings of her siblings about the proper period of incarceration.”
3. Prison conduct
It also takes no account of Soering’s despicable conduct throughout his imprisonment, during which he lied relentlessly while defaming anyone and everyone involved in the case against him, including Major Ricky Gardner and former Commonwealth’s Attorney (now Judge) Jim Updike. At no point has he ever retracted or apologised for these slurs. The Parole Board sent out the message that it won’t even stand behind its own people in the face of external pressure based on known lies.
USA Today reported that –
“The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office did not return a call seeking comment.”
(They were probably indisposed through nausea, vomiting in the bathroom.)
At the same time, Soering spared no effort to blame totally innocent people for his actions, several of whom are dead. He is also responsible for his agents and proxies doing the same thing.
By contrast, Elizabeth Haysom never made false allegations against any of the state officials involved. But that counted for nothing in the end.
4. Complete lack of remorse
Soering has never shown a hint of remorse for his revolting crimes. By the Board’s own published parole criteria he fell a long way short of qualifying for release on multiple grounds. These criteria were flagrantly disregarded.
The Statement Continues
If lacking credible reasons, try some false equivalence
The statement then refers to “the horrific crimes they committed.” This is classic false equivalence, and again not by accident. Haysom pleaded guilty to her role in the plan but Jens Soering alone committed the “horrific crimes”, as everyone at the Parole Board knows. In this context it should be remembered what he told Dr John Hamilton:
“He does not recall her asking what had happened but he assumed that she knew her parents were now dead. He then told her something of what had happened but not the whole “messiness” of it.” (Report, page 8.)
Once Soering left Washington DC the way events unfolded was completely out of her hands. That doesn’t remove responsibility for her own role in the greater plan, but it’s still a matter of fact that she had no control and no say over what he did. The murders were without question utterly horrific, every aspect being the product of choices made by Jens Soering himself. He was nobody’s dupe.
Just as Soering acknowledged to Dr Hamilton, Elizabeth Haysom was not fully aware of exactly what he’d done and did not find out until October 1986 when she first saw the graphic photographs in her extradition file. That was covered in Beyond Reason, Ken Englade’s 1990 book about the case, and much more recently confirmed by her in 2017:
“It was those pictures, part of the extradition packet, that snapped me out of my lunacy with Jens, Sept/Oct 1986. I wrote and told him, ‘I’m pleading guilty, I’m going back and facing this.’ It took me years to get over those pictures. Every so often I still have a nightmare about them.”
The attempted false equivalence justification is shamelessly dishonest.
The bogus cost justification
Probably predictably, the cost justification then makes an appearance in a desperate attempt to add a further coat of gloss to an untenable argument:
“Their release and permanent expulsion from the United States is a tremendous cost benefit to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia…”
The claim is heard regularly that it costs x thousands per year (pick a figure) to keep someone in prison. It isn’t strictly true; the marginal cost of an extra couple of prisoners here and there is negligible. Once the decision has been made to establish a prison there are obviously huge building costs, and then maintenance, staffing, administration, etc. It’s very easy to get a (completely misleading) per person figure by dividing the annual running cost of a prison by the number of prisoners housed there, but it still conceals the reality that individual prisoners don’t cost much at all. The cost is applicable only to the inmate population as a whole. To assert that releasing a couple of individuals is a “tremendous cost benefit to the taxpayers” is purest nonsense and Bennett must have been fully aware of that when writing it; this ad hoc argument is again less than honest.
It should also be noted with sardonic amusement that the argument wilfully disregards Elizabeth Haysom’s computer-aided drafting work, leading a small team of talented women on behalf of outside commercial contractors, which was highly profitable for Virginia. The absence of their golden goose is likely to have the effect of reducing future revenue substantially. So not much of a “tremendous cost benefit” there.
But a tremendous cost to taxpayers was undoubtedly incurred by the need for thorough investigation of a fraudulent pardon petition and innocence claim, of course. Did Soering and Rosenfield receive a bill?
Concluding the cost nonsense
Whatever else one might say about the Virginia Parole Board, it’s certainly not a body renowned for its liberal approach to penal policy and criminal justice issues. While there are signs that it may be slightly more receptive to parole applications than previous compositions of the Board, its members still tend to follow what has become the established practice of searching for any reason, good or bad, not to grant parole if they can avoid it. On those hundreds of occasions cost never seems to be an important factor, or indeed a factor at all.
One pertinent comparison among many illustrates the point. Over the course of time Soering and his team tried repeatedly to blame the Haysom murders on two homeless drifters, William Shifflett and Robert Albright. The allegation has been carefully considered by many different judges sitting in superior courts, both state and federal, and rejected every time for the absurdity it is.
Roanoke Times, 21 November 1996:
“Shifflett’s and Albright’s fingerprints were compared with unidentified prints found at the Haysom murder scene and were eliminated. That information was admitted into evidence at Soering’s trial and was given to his defense. Soering’s fingerprints were not found at the scene.
Until recently, Soering’s attorney, Gail Marshall, was unaware that Shifflett’s and Albright’s prints were part of the trial record, and she was seeking them from the Department of Corrections and the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, claiming they had been withheld or overlooked.
“To me, she didn’t do her homework,” said Sgt. Ricky Gardner, chief investigator in the Haysom murders. “She was saying why didn’t we fingerprint these guys, and she was demanding we turn over this to her. Well, we did do it.””
All the same, Shifflett and Albright were definitely murderers. About a week after the Haysom murders occurred they stabbed another man to death with the intention of robbing him, afterwards mutilating his body by cutting off his penis. There is no question whatever that it was a very ugly crime. Overall, however, it was certainly no more ugly than the totality of Soering’s actions, arguably rather less. And together they only murdered one person, not two. What became of them?
William Shifflett, it appears, died while still incarcerated in 2018, but Robert Albright – who pleaded guilty – very much remains in prison right now for committing a single murder in 1985. There has been no early parole for this man with only half the number of murders to his name. It looks strange when his crime is balanced against the “tremendous cost benefit to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia” of granting him parole, for which he is eligible. It seems that the hallowed cost benefit is relevant only very selectively. In fact, it seems relevant only in the case of Jens Soering. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
US Court of Appeals extract concerning Shifflett and Albright, PDF
So What Really Happened?
A startling conversion
What we can say for sure is that in the particular case of Jens Soering the Parole Board underwent a conversion no less startling than that experienced by Paul on the road to Damascus: Hallelujah, Lord – it’s a miracle! Only months earlier, in January 2019, the record shows that its members were unanimous in voting against granting him parole, citing two reasons:
“Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime”
“Serious nature and circumstances of your offense(s).”
So what happened to bring about this rapid change of heart?
An enormous clue can be found in plain sight, and requires a careful look at Soering’s more famous and well connected fans.
By now it’s very well known that two of Soering’s most fanatical supporters are music executive Jason Flom and author John Grisham, both actively committed Democrats. Flom and Grisham were heard together on the petulant Wrongful Conviction podcast in 2019, which was updated on 4 December to incorporate news of the parole decision. In the original version of the podcast they were talking predictably uninformed nonsense, promulgating the same tired old lies as fact, and in the update they retreated not a step. Amid all the jubilation and congratulatory back-slapping they somehow forgot to mention that Soering’s pardon petition was refused, as it had to be because he is completely guilty. But as very rich men who were always determined to get their own way, no matter what, they don’t give a damn about that.
Lobbying hard at the top level
Flom and Grisham were keeping busy in other ways too. Here, in part, is what we know.
Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was elected as Governor of Virginia in November 2017 and took office in January 2018.
Had a Republican been elected at that point it would have been game over, and the chances of getting their beloved boy out of prison would have disappeared like the sun sinking beneath the horizon. Flom and Grisham therefore had to nurture the only hope open to them and trust that events would work out to their advantage. And with Northam’s election they were in luck.
Grisham, a Democratic Party donor, had personal meetings with Northam, at least one of which was for the purpose of furthering Soering’s case; or to put it another way, for the purpose of misrepresenting the facts and evidence for Soering’s benefit.
Similarly, Flom had at least two meetings with Northam in 2017, during one of which – unbelievable as it may sound – Jens Soering made a prearranged call from prison to Flom’s number and was then passed across to Northam for a friendly chat. How many convicted murderers get that kind of privileged access? The soon-to-be Governor told Soering that one of his children was born in Germany and he hoped they’d be able to meet there one day.
Soering then relayed the news to supporters via JPay, the chronically insecure prison email system, which is routinely monitored for interesting chatter:
“As I think I told you, Jason Flom is a great supporter of mine. On August 10, he arranged for me to call into his meeting with Ralph Northam. (We had a very nice ten-minute talk. Mr. Northam’s daughter was born in Germany, and he told me he’d like to meet me in Landstuhl, where he was stationed, when he visits Germany.)”
It will no doubt be a joyous occasion. Any chance of some dancing girls and a brass band?
Further, records show that during the latter part of 2017 Flom also made two significant financial donations to Northam’s campaign funds, which were duly registered:
“METHODOLOGY: All donations listed here were reported by committees related to Ralph Northam.”
All perfectly innocent, one could say. People are entitled to contribute money to their preferred political candidates, and sometimes they do. Even a person from distant New York is entitled to contribute money to a candidate in Virginia if he so wishes. But it’s also appropriate to take a close look at that and ask what the underlying reason for it might be – and the curious timing.
Both Grisham and Flom have had a lot to say about this case, nearly all of it untrue, neither man being remotely hesitant to reveal his prejudices and put them on public display. And yet at the same time neither has uttered a single word about donations or any cosy meetings with Ralph Northam, which appear to have been ultimately decisive – not a squeak, not a whisper from either of them. Again, why would that be? The answer’s surely not too hard to discern. As the old saying goes:
Looks like we got us a duck!
Now back to the Parole Board
Northam having been suitably softened up and found receptive, everything would then move back to the Parole Board. The situation there, as shown above, didn’t look promising at all. Parole for Soering had already been curtly rejected in January 2019 for compelling reasons; then the devastating Wright Report was submitted much later in the year, and in due course the Board’s own investigators completed their work, reaching the only conclusion open to them because the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. And yet…
Urgent representations were being made behind the scenes to manipulate the decision, not least by Grisham and Flom, who left no road untravelled in their quest to exert influence. More calls were made to the Governor, and Flom also made it his business to cultivate Adrianne Bennett personally, who duly gave him a figurative wink about the pending outcome. All Parole Board members were lobbied individually by other Soering team members, while State Senator Creigh Deeds and Delegate David Toscano (both Democrats, unsurprisingly) were handed packages of untruthful information to pass on to the Governor. And on and on it went. The scale of the whitewash operation was astonishing.
It is simply inconceivable in the circumstances that Governor Northam didn’t make his wishes known to Board chairwoman Bennett, yet another Democrat; the existence of fairies and leprechauns would be much more plausible. The paradox here is that their roles were then reversed in the process. The pardon decision was formally the Governor’s to make, which he effectively delegated to the Board and had committed himself to accepting their recommendation. On the other hand, parole decisions are formally for the Board members acting independently, but on this occasion their decision was prompted by the wish of the Governor. He could nevertheless point to their independent status and disclaim all responsibility because strictly speaking it wasn’t his decision, at least not for public consumption, which is fittingly convenient. It’s back to fairies and leprechauns.
“Northam, a Democrat, “respects the Parole Board’s expertise and appreciates their work on this and all other cases,” the governor’s office said in a statement.”
No doubt he does. It was job done, mission accomplished, and he probably spent the day humming a jolly tune, perhaps Ode An die Freude (Ode to Joy).
A well-informed source close to the Parole Board said this:
“Adrianne makes the decisions and the others just follow suit.”
The decision had an exceptionally foul aroma – stinky, putrid, rank – from the second it was announced. The only credible explanation for that, always, was a back-room fix, instigated by Northam but requiring the willing participation of Bennett, with other Board members following their leader and getting in step. So that is how you end up with a corrupt parole decision, when propriety and integrity have made their excuses and left the room.
Further Considerations and Reflections
Overall, what did we learn?
Corruption comes in various forms, by no means all of them against the law. That uncontroversial proposition was restated very recently by Justice Elena Kagan in the US Supreme Court (Kelly v. United States, the “Bridgegate” case), when she observed that –
“not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime“.
And the point is equally applicable to parole decisions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call them what they are.
More than two years ago, in response to the partisan bile of Chip Harding’s mendacious report, it was noted here that very few people entering Soering’s orbit leave it without being morally corrupted. In retrospect the force of that observation has only intensified. In the end the corruption became so pervasive that it even reached into the Office of the Governor and the Parole Board, so not many were left untainted. Hence Bennett’s wholly disingenuous statement desperately attempting to justify the unjustifiable, which she knew was impossible to accomplish in good faith.
However unpalatable it may be, what cannot be ignored is that every person closely involved in the decision was a Democrat, every one. And it’s not as if there’s no history, with former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine shredding his own reputation by agreeing back in 2010, during his final days in office (a very popular time for corrupt decisions), to return Soering to Germany for early release. Fortunately it came so late that Kaine’s Republican successor, Bob McDonnell, was able to revoke the decision as soon as he took over. McDonnell later went on to have his own serious probity issues, so no party affiliation is implied here, but it’s undeniable that for gerrymandered parole decisions in Virginia, Democrats have been the ones to betray public trust.
None of this arises from legitimate differences in approach to penal policy between those of liberal inclination and those of sterner views. In that respect – should it have escaped notice – this site has never taken a position on the appropriate term of imprisonment for Jens Soering. Opinions among people who follow the case have ranged from the 10 years or so he might have served in Germany (as it is often claimed) all the way up to a whole-life term. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum, neither end seeming particularly appealing. But it’s really not the point now.
However long Soering served, it always had to be a significant number of years more than Elizabeth Haysom, there being no valid argument to the contrary. A starting figure of at least 8-10 years would not have been at all unreasonable when considered against the long list of distinguishing features once again:
- Charge. He was charged with first-degree murder: she was not.
- Sentence. He received two life sentences: she did not.
- Plea. He pleaded not guilty, necessitating a full trial: she accepted responsibility for her actions and pleaded guilty from the start.
- Mitigation. In Haysom’s case only, the judge identified three mitigating factors which influenced the sentence he imposed.
- Remorse. There was deep remorse on her part: none on his.
- Co-operation. She co-operated with the prosecution for no reward or inducement, and gave evidence against Soering.
- Prison conduct. She occupied her time gaining qualifications, acquired skills, taught other inmates, and worked extremely productively: he spent his time conducting an aggressively dishonest innocence campaign while also slandering state officials and everyone else who opposed him.
Anyone familiar with how the legal and penal processes work would know that each of those factors is relevant. Cumulatively they make the distinction enormous.
In summary, therefore, there was never any basis whatsoever for releasing them on parole at the same time, not in terms of policy or practice, nor the slightest case ethically, morally or philosophically. There is no principle capable of justifying it or coming close. What the Parole Board did was to usurp the role of the judge and render the charges, pleas, sentences and conduct irrelevant. That’s not how penal systems are meant to function.
The true nature of the decision was properly understood and rightly excoriated by State Delegate Rob Bell (Republican), who commented:
“Soering’s release demonstrates that if you have powerful enough friends your sentence will not be set by a jury of citizens or by the judge that heard the case, it will be set by five governor’s appointees decades after the event.”
That short analysis cannot be faulted.
A system gone very wrong
It is the treatment of Elizabeth Haysom in this case which also demonstrates with ample clarity how badly wrong the entire system has gone, although she will not be the only example. Inevitably there must be many more.
Parole was abolished under Virginia’s “Truth-in-Sentencing” reforms which took effect in 1995. Greater transparency about the real effect of sentences was no bad thing in itself, though not the subject here. But a problem created by the reforms was that all existing prisoners had been sentenced under the system then in force and many were eligible for parole at some stage. Any attempt to rescind that eligibility would have been very arguably tantamount to re-sentencing them and in breach of the common law prohibition on retroactive sentences. By analogy, that also finds expression in the ex post facto clause enshrined in Article 1, section 9(3) of the United States Constitution, even if this is not the place to rehearse the finer points of American jurisprudence.
Nevertheless, the Parole Board immediately began to apply new rules to the previous system under which people had been lawfully sentenced, and the rate of successful parole applications fell from a little over 40% to 2-4% after 1995. Ostensibly no sentences had changed; the Board just declined to carry out its legal function in good faith from that point on. Granting no applications at all would surely have brought the ex post facto clause running onto the field of play in all its pomp, as well as raising the added possibility of a legal challenge on the grounds that the Board had unlawfully fettered its discretion. So as a fig leaf of respectability they kept the success rate down to an absolute minimum, no matter how meritorious the application. And they got away with it.
Elizabeth Haysom was sentenced to 90 years in prison, 2 x 45 years to run consecutively. At first glance the sentence looked bizarre because she could never have lived long enough to serve it; if taken literally it would have been the equivalent of a whole-life term. But the judge was a man of considerable experience and knew the system from top to bottom. He understood very well that Haysom would actually serve only a fraction of the time and sentenced her on that basis.
The result of Judge Sweeney’s sentence was that she became parole-eligible for the first time in 1995, after eight years, as he knew would happen. Release at that early stage was never going to occur, however, after his unusual and strikingly spiteful post-sentence letter to the Parole Board recommending that she serve a “substantial portion” of her sentence. That intervention needlessly tarnished him – the length of sentence, already harsh, was always at his sole discretion – after he had presided over the sentencing hearing (and later over Soering’s trial) with impeccable fairness and propriety. Even taking Sweeney’s intervention into account, however, Haysom still had a legitimate expectation of being released perhaps after 12 years, but certainly not later than the 15-year point in her incarceration. That was the common understanding of well-informed people on all sides, even if not of the howler monkeys on the fringes.
But the Parole Board then assumed for itself the right, in effect, to re-sentence her by applying its new practice to an older sentencing structure. Had anyone been willing to throw large amounts of money at the problem, a law suit might have exposed what was happening and produced the necessary legal rebuke. Such a luxury is not commonly available to prisoners. Instead, she served over 32 years, which could never have been within the contemplation of the judge. That’s the background.
Then came the Board’s grotesque 2019 decision, as a consequence of which Elizabeth Haysom actually ended up spending longer in custody than Jens Soering. He reached Germany on 17 December in good time for Christmas, while she was not dispatched to Canada until 22 January. Who would dare to justify that? (As it happens, the disparity appears to have arisen from the fact that Germany was quicker to get its paperwork in order, but that doesn’t diminish the point. It was eminently foreseeable.)
Having previously expressed his considered view in 2013 that “If anybody is to be paroled, it’s Elizabeth“, the fundamental principle involved was recognised by Major Ricky Gardner in 2016 when reflecting acerbically on former Governor Kaine’s willingness to return Soering to Germany:
“If the parole board in their wisdom paroled Elizabeth next week and then Jens Soering the following week, that’s just the way the system works,” Gardner said. “But for her to serve one day longer sentence or stay in jail one day longer than him is a complete travesty of justice. And if Kaine had gotten his way, that’s what would have happened.”
Gardner was right, as usual. And ultimately she did spend weeks longer in custody – “a complete travesty of justice.”
The deeper you dive into this case, the worse it gets. Sometimes it begins to have the feel of a grand conspiracy, but in reality it’s not quite as dramatic. It’s more like an accretion of lies and corruption over time, with susceptible people being enlisted in their ones and twos, and the emergence of a virulent strain of groupthink from which some will never recover. The most obvious symptom is a steadfast refusal on the part of so many afflicted recruits and hangers-on to acknowledge how very wrong they were, even now.
More shocking, despite there always being grounds for suspicion, was the way corruption spread to the Governor and the Parole Board. In other jurisdictions the Board’s activities would be subject to strict judicial oversight, but not in Virginia, and the consequences are all too apparent. Currently there is no legal remedy: no laws have been broken, so the system will carry on with impunity.
The only solution, if any, is via the electoral process. Virginia voters elect their Governor, and he in turn appoints Parole Board members as he sees fit. It’s all about the politics. Yet this site is not politically partisan in any wider sense – that ground would be more comfortably avoided altogether were it possible – but the inescapable facts of the Soering case keep pushing themselves to the front of the picture. If the next Governor, of whichever party, fails to replace current Board members at the first opportunity, what will change? The appointment of a new chairwoman in May 2020 doesn’t look likely to resolve the underlying integrity problems.
Of course, nothing revealed in this post will make the slightest difference now. However, the information – which is only an outline – will at least be available to any people in Virginia who wish to know what was done in their name before time causes weeds to grow over it. The real issue is not in the end whether the parole system is liberal or more restrictive in its approach; it could be either or midway between. But parole decisions should still be made according to known principles applied consistently, and not dependent on particular inmates being treated as special cases because they have influential friends. Especially not the most savage, unrepentant and cynical of murderers.
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