Soering trial full of culture shocks
By Monica Davey, The Roanoke Times, June 24, 1990
One arm outstretched to make his point, Jens Soering sometimes seemed more like a college professor lecturing his class than an accused killer on the witness stand.
Questioned for two days last week during his trial for murder, Soering would often stop and say: "Maybe I should explain about that."
He explained "neurolinguistic programming" as a type of subliminal suggestion already used successfully in shopping malls to encourage people to make more purchases. At that, some jurors looked blankly back at him.
Soering defined the "I-bombs" he had referred to in a letter he once wrote. They were ideology bombs, he said.
At one point, he offered what he called a "textbook" summary of Darwinian theory.
And later, he explained how some lines he had used in letters to his former girlfriend were quotations from books. One line, Soering said, was actually a quote from a George Orwell novel. Another, he told the prosecutor, were the words of author D.H. Lawrence.
"You're saying that that's T.H. Lawrence?" Bedford prosecutor James Updike asked, reading back the quotation.
"D.H. Lawrence," Soering corrected.
"Oh. OK," Updike said sarcastically.
Soering responded angrily, "I can't help my upbringing."
Formerly a Jefferson scholar at the University of Virginia, Soering was convicted last Thursday of the 1985 slashing murders of his former girlfriend's parents, Nancy and Derek Haysom.
The West German national's three-week trial brought people with a vast range of educational experience, social backgrounds and foreign accents to the Bedford County Courthouse. What resulted was a clash of cultures that at various times was a source of misunderstanding, anger and even humor.
Soering's attorney believes that differences between Soering and the 12-person jury from Nelson County had an impact.
"I think it affected them a lot," attorney Rick Neaton said. "Most people from Nelson County don't have the life experience of Jens Soering. Most people aren't the sons of West German diplomats; most people don't have his IQ."
And most people, Neaton admitted, don't talk about neurolinguistic programming or I-bombs or run around spouting theories from Charles Darwin or quotes from Lawrence.
"Most people deal with ordinary problems in life: whether your car starts in the morning or making the mortgage payment," Neaton said. "It's hard for me even to relate to him."
Cultural differences arose early in the Haysom case.
Five days after the Haysoms' bodies were found in 1985, Bedford County authorities interviewed the couple's youngest daughter. They wanted a little family background.
Elizabeth Haysom, then a freshman honors student at UVa, gave them a lengthy interview about her father's international intrigue as a steel executive in South Africa and Canada and her own secondary education at private schools in England.
At one point in the interview, she mentioned a year in which her father had left Zimbabwe for Luxembourg.
"Where's that?" the Bedford investigator asked.
Five years later, the differences showed up again in the courtroom.
Several witnesses had to repeat themselves - for the benefit of the court stenographer, who has grown accustomed to the Southwest Virginia accents that usually fill Bedford County Circuit Court.
Haysom, a Canadian citizen who testified against Soering, spoke with a South African-sounding accent. Soering speaks with a British-sounding accent that he describes as a mid-Atlantic sound. His father, a West German diplomat stationed in Africa, spoke with a strong German accent.
The jurors even listened to a German professor testify because one of several confessions Soering made was in German. The Roanoke College professor read his translation of the taped confession aloud.
The largest contingent of witnesses, aside from those with Southern accents, were police from London, where Soering and Haysom were arrested in 1986 on unrelated fraud charges. The British detectives had found the couple's incriminating letters and diary and eventually contacted Bedford County authorities.
Several British detectives came to Bedford just to testify to a chain-of-evidence issue - that the tapes of one of Soering's confessions had not been altered in any way while in London.
"They were retained in a secure room in Scotland Yard," British detective Robert Crane said, in what turned out to be the bulk of his one-minute testimony.
"You came a long way to say a little bit," Circuit Court Judge William Sweeney told Crane.
"The briefest evidence I ever gave, sir," he said, getting laughter from the court spectators.
But Sweeney made the most of the cultural exchange.
At one point, he stopped a British detective who thought he was done testifying and was preparing to step off the stand.
Just out of curiosity, what is the difference between the London Metropolitan police and Scotland Yard, Judge Sweeney asked.
Another time, Sweeney had to stop a detective in the middle of his testimony to ask him to define a word he had been using. A "wicket," the officer told the jury, is a small window in the door of a British prison cell.
Soering worried not about a funny-sounding accent, but about a philosophical perspective.
Without a German perspective, jurors might never be able to understand his motivations, Soering told them during the trial.
He claimed that his girlfriend actually killed her parents but that he falsely confessed to the crimes. He said he feared that she would face death in the electric chair if she were caught, but he believed he would serve only a short prison sentence if convicted, because of his father's position.
"I think it's a bit difficult for Americans to understand," Soering said. "As a German after World War II. . . . I'm particularly opposed to the death penalty."
The "general feeling" in Germany is that a government-sponsored killing is the worst form of murder possible, Soering said.
"To me, if I had turned Elizabeth in, . . . that would be myself becoming a murderer - the worst form of murderer," he said. "That's what it means to be German."
To Soering's father, this country's entire judicial system didn't make sense.
Klaus Soering, who watched most of the trial, was unimpressed by the jury system, Neaton said last week. In Soering's home country, defendants are tried by professional judges.
"He also has a more European outlook on crime and punishment," Neaton said. Young people in particular are given second chances there, Neaton said.
"He accepts the fact that that was the verdict, but he felt the trial was made more of a circus than it should have been," Neaton said. "He perceived a lot of the emotion the commonwealth put into this trial as personal animosity against his son."
Klaus Soering was particularly offended by a remark the prosecutor made in 1989, when Soering's son was seeking extradition to West Germany for trial.
At that time, Updike told a reporter that as far as he was concerned, "Germany can go to hell."
"He felt that was uncalled for and insensitive," Neaton said. "It offended him in the same way that the `yokels' comment offended."
That yokels comment haunted Soering throughout the trial.
In a letter before his extradition to this country, Soering had boldly told Haysom not to worry about a thing with Bedford County authorities in charge. "Those yokels don't know what's coming down," Soering wrote.
And Updike would not let Soering - or the jury - forget the snobbery.
Updike played up the cut over and over.
"You know how dumb and slow and stupid we are," Updike said, mocking Soering during closing argument. "We moseyed around to the idea of talking to Jens Soering."
Neaton called it "a good tactic" on Updike's part.
"But I don't think Jens really thinks people are dumb here," Neaton said. "That's an 18-year-old trying to act superior to everyone."
"If there was a Bedford, Michigan, he probably would have said the same thing about `those Yankees,' " said Neaton, a Detroit native.
Neaton said he will never know whether the cultural differences affected the outcome for his client.
One juror, who asked not to be named, said she thought Soering had a "strange upbringing."
"They did not go to church as much as they should," she said. A British detective had testified that Soering described himself as an agnostic.
"If he was brought up different, . . . he would have known that no matter how much you love someone you don't take another life," the juror said.
Apparently, Soering's yokels statement didn't alienate the jury, according to several jurors interviewed.
Asked whether it affected his feelings towards Soering, Juror Sterl Irvine just laughed.
"I'm originally from West Virginia," Irvine said. "I've been called a hillbilly so many times, it don't bother me none at all."