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Judge rejects Soering appeal

(by Jennifer L. Berghom, Lynchburg News & Advance, March 5, 2003)

RUSTBURG - Campbell County Circuit Court Judge J. Samuel Johnston has dismissed a petition filed by Jens Soering, who was convicted in 1990 of killing Bedford County residents Derek and Nancy Haysom, stating that the petition was without merit.

Soering, who is up for parole for the first time this year, has filed roughly a dozen appeals and petitions since he has been incarcerated, asking that his conviction be overturned.

His latest petition, filed in August 2002, asks the court to overturn the guilty verdict on the grounds that trial Judge William W. Sweeney should not have presided over Soering's case because he was a friend and VMI classmate of Nancy Haysom's brother, Risque Benedict. The petition was originally sent to Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James Updike, the prosecutor during the trial, who recused himself and transferred the petition to Johnston.

In explaining his decision, Johnston wrote that Soering confused "subject matter jurisdiction with procedural and substantive due process." "There can be no serious question that the Bedford County Circuit Court had jurisdiction to try Mr. Soering for murder. To argue otherwise is fatuous and nonsensical," he wrote.

Johnston's letter also stated that the issue of whether Sweeney should recuse himself was presented to state and federal courts before and was dismissed, with the courts saying the law allows Sweeney to make that decision. "The Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled in its opinion dated October 9, 1991, that all of the matters complained of by Mr. Soering regarding Judge Sweeney's relationship with the victims of the murder and the brother of one of the victims, his presiding over the trial of Elizabeth Haysom, and any extrajudicial statements made by him concerning Mr. Soering's apparent involvement in the murders did not individually or cumulatively establish bias or prejudice on the part of Judge Sweeney which would require his recusal," Johnston wrote.

He added that the Supreme Court of Virginia and the U.S. District Court, U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court had reviewed the issue brought up by the Virginia Appeals Court and agreed with that court's decision. "Mr. Soering cannot be granted relief on a theory devoid of merit and one that has heretofore been rejected at every judicial level.  Therefore, I am denying the petition, finding it to be without merit and dismissing the same," Johnston wrote.

Soering's petition makes the following points:

    At a Feb. 7, 1990, pre-trial hearing, the trial court (Judge Sweeney) acknowledged that he had known the brother of one of the victims for over 40 years.

    In a letter opinion dated Feb. 13, 1990, the trial court alleged he "was careful not to comment on the guilt or innocence of Jens Soering."

    On June 1, 1990, the first day of petitioner's trial, the regional magazine Albemarle published a front cover story on the case in which the judge was quoted directly: "He (meaning the petitioner) took the dare' and committed the crime - not the petitioner's accomplice, his girlfriend and the victims' daughter, who is also the niece of the trial court's friend of over 40 years."

    In a letter opinion and order dated Sept. 25, 1990, the trial court did not deny the contents of the article but merely expressed surprise at the timing of its publication.

Johnston received the petition Aug. 28 and gave Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and the commonwealth of Virginia until Oct. 1 to respond to allegations made by Soering. The commonwealth and attorney general are involved because an official with the Department of Corrections is listed as the defendant, so the attorney general is required by law to defend him. Johnston also disagreed with the argument made by Senior Assistant Attorney General John H. McLees that Soering's petition was "untimely filed" and should be barred procedurally.

The current petition is filed under Soering v. Wright.  Edward E. Wright is the warden at Brunswick Correctional Center where Soering is serving two life terms.

The Haysoms were found stabbed to death in their home on Holcomb Rock Road, just outside Lynchburg, in April 1985. Soering and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, the victims' daughter, later left the country when the investigation turned in their direction and were eventually arrested in a London suburb on shoplifting charges.  When British Authorities searched the couple's rented flat, they found letters and diary entries that seemed to connect them to the Haysoms' death.

Soering confessed to the crime on several occasions while incarcerated in England, but later insisted he had only done so to protect Elizabeth from a possible death sentence.  Because he was a German citizen and the son of a diplomat, Soering believed he would not be deported to the United States.

Elizabeth Haysom returned to the United States in 1987, pleading guilty to conspiring to kill her parents.  She was sentenced to 90 years in prison.  Sweeney also presided over that trial.

Soering fought extradition for several years, but was returned to the United States after Updike, then Bedford County's commonwealth's attorney, was forced to promise not to seek the death penalty.

After his conviction, Soering filed several appeals and petitions, but they all have been denied. According to the most recent petition, it is the first time Soering has tried an appeal on the grounds that Sweeney was biased (although, as alluded to in the latest document, the issue did arise in a pre-trial hearing).

Soering has maintained his innocence since his conviction.
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