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Jury finds Soering guilty

By Monica Davey, The Roanoke Times, June 22, 1990

Ex-honor student given two life terms in Haysom deaths

Jens Soering was convicted Thursday on two counts of first-degree murder for the 1985 stabbing deaths of his girlfriend's parents.

A jury of six men and six women deliberated for slightly less than four hours Thursday afternoon before sentencing the 23-year-old former University of Virginia honor student to two life sentences in prison - the maximum punishment possible.

Bedford Circuit Court Judge William Sweeney will formally impose Soering's sentence once a pre-sentence report is submitted.

Soering, his cheeks flushed, sat motionless in his chair as the verdicts were read. Blinking behind his thick glasses, Soering showed no reaction afterward. Usually talkative, he whispered only a few words to his attorneys.

When Judge Sweeney asked if Soering knew of any reason the judge should not pronounce judgment on him, Soering shrugged his shoulders and said, "I am innocent."

Soering maintained throughout the trial that it was his girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, who killed her parents March 30, 1985, and then persuaded him to confess to it. He testified that he took the blame for the killings to protect Haysom from death in the electric chair in case she were caught.

But Haysom, who is serving 90 years in prison for helping to plot the killings, testified that it was Soering who drove to her parents' Boonsboro cottage while she created an alibi for him in Washington, D.C.

On April 3, 1985, a family friend found Derek Haysom, 72, with a slit throat and 39 stab wounds. Haysom was a retired steel executive. Nancy Haysom, 53, also had a slit throat and was stabbed eight times.

Elizabeth Haysom said she manipulated Soering into despising her parents as she did because they tried to control her and did not approve of her relationship with Soering.

The Nelson County jurors, who had cheerfully told the judge "good morning" on each of the trial's 13 days, looked somberly at the floor as they re-entered the courtroom about 6:45 p.m. after deliberating.

When the jurors were polled, one woman paused for a second before saying yes. Her eyes welled up with tears as she looked in Soering's direction and then back at the floor.

As they left the courthouse, the 12 jurors refused comment to a mob of reporters from Washington, Charlottesville, Richmond, Lynchburg and Roanoke gathered on the Bedford County Courthouse steps.

"We'd rather not discuss it," said one juror. "It's a very sensitive issue." Two of the female jurors held hands.

The jurors walked two blocks down the street and climbed into their cars for the two-hour commute home to Nelson County.

Back at the courthouse, a crowd gathered along the sidewalk and motorists stopped along Bedford's main thoroughfare as word spread that the verdict was in.

The high-profile case had kept another group of curious spectators inside the courtroom even during the hours of deliberation.

Earlier in the day, city officials got a brief scare when a man was spotted outside the courthouse riding a bicycle and apparently carrying a handgun in his back pocket. The man rode by - and was arrested - just as jurors were leaving the court for lunch.

Standing outside his office after the verdict, Bedford Commonwealth's Attorney James Updike - who had been working on the Haysom case for five years - was clearly relieved. He said he felt gratitude at the jury's decision.

"There were times I didn't think I'd live long enough to get here," Updike told a throng of reporters. Soering was indicted for the murders in June 1986 while in London but fought extradition to this country for nearly four years.

British authorities eventually agreed to extradite him to the United States on the condition that he not be tried for a crime punishable by death. With the promise that the capital murder charge not be prosecuted, Soering came to Bedford County Jail on Jan. 12.

With the case over, Updike said he will take a few days off. Then, he said, it's business as usual. He will start preparations for Bedford County's next murder case - set for next month.

Updike said he was unsure how much the lengthy case would end up costing the state. Not as much as one might expect, he said. And regardless, he said, "There's a cost to any worthwhile endeavor."

The price will include plane fares and motel rooms for a group of British investigators who caught up with Soering on unrelated fraud charges in April 1986 and testified at the trial.

That month, British investigators found incriminating letters and diaries belonging to Soering and Haysom and suspected that "someone had been murdered somewhere."

Detective Terry Wright, who got in touch with Bedford County investigators a few weeks later, on Thursday described Soering as a "very dangerous" person.

"He has convinced himself that he is innocent," Wright said.

Updike thanked those - from Britain and from Bedford - who had worked on the case for hours and years. He also thanked the families of those people.

"I'm not sure if people realize just how much the families went through," Updike said. "My wife, especially."

Marilyn Updike, seated behind her husband in the courtroom when the verdicts were read, became teary-eyed when she heard the outcome. Bedford County Sheriff's Investigator Ricky Gardner, who had led the investigation, hurried back into Updike's office after the verdict and embraced his wife.

Updike said he did not believe it was any single piece of evidence that convinced the jury of Soering's guilt. Rather, he said, it was all the "pieces of the puzzle" that melded into an irrefutable case.

Updike put those pieces together in his closing argument Thursday morning: Haysom's testimony, physical evidence at the murder scene, letters and diaries Soering had written and a motive.

"And save for the very last a little icing on the cake," Updike said. "He's the one who said he did it." Soering confessed to the killings five times during 1986.

Defense attorneys Rick Neaton and William Cleaveland had told jurors that Updike's case did not prove their client's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There were too many holes, they said in their closing argument.

Neaton said the pieces of Updike's puzzle had been "cut" to make Soering the killer.

Neaton portrayed the police investigation into the Haysom killings as shoddy and incomplete. Once Soering was indicted, authorities did not thoroughly check the evidence, he said. They did not want to know whether Elizabeth Haysom was actually the killer.

Haysom was the other weak link in the prosecution's case, Neaton told the jurors. Earlier in the trial, Neaton had tried to point out inconsistencies in her testimony and interviews with police over the years.

"To convict Jens Soering, you have to take the word of a pathological liar in this case," Neaton said. "The stories she tells never turn out to be true."

After the verdict, Neaton would not say whether he plans to appeal. He and Cleaveland said they needed some time to rest and think.

In the months leading up to the trial, they had objected vigorously and repeatedly to various pre-trial rulings. Observers speculated the lawyers were stocking up on issues to appeal in the case.

But Updike maintained there was no error that would warrant appeal. "I tried at all stages to protect the record and keep it clean," he said.

The defense attorneys talked with Soering privately in a holding cell at the courthouse for about 15 minutes. "The kid says he's innocent and now he's been convicted. How would you feel?" Neaton said outside the courthouse.

"At age 23, he's facing two life terms," Cleaveland said.

"At least we saved his life last summer," Neaton added - referring to the European Court ruling that prevented Soering from facing the death penalty in the case.