Chris and I got married on February 29th, 2020—just in time, it seems. Only two of our guests cancelled at the last minute for fear of travel due to the coronavirus. This was before Governor Inslee called for the cancellation of any event with over fifty participants. Now, just two weeks later, Chris and I are grateful that we’ve only had to cancel our honeymoon. We were planning on travelling to Germany to visit Jens Soering who, after 33 years wrongfully imprisoned, has reentered the world at a very strange time. We were hoping to write about meeting him in person for the first time, after months of conversations through the prison phone system. In lieu of that, from the safety of our home quarantine here in Seattle, I’m reflecting on the moment we learned Jens would be freed.
You never know when the call will come. As it happened, the sun had yet to crest the mountains to the east as the door of the gym jingled shut behind me. I was tired, not at all ready for the elliptical, when my phone rang: a call from my friend, Jason Flom. He said three words, “He’s getting out!” and my heart began racing. “Jens? Do we know for sure?” I was already crying. “Do his lawyers know? How soon? We have to go see him!”
Jens Soering, a German student living in Virginia, was convicted of the double-homicide of Derek and Nancy Haysom in 1986. For thirty-three long years—longer than I’ve been alive—he pleaded his innocence, losing appeal after appeal, being denied parole fourteen times. I only became aware of his plight last year, when I devoted a season of my podcast, The Truth About True Crime, to his story. There were so many strange parallels between our cases, I started to see Jens as the version of myself who never got out.
You’d think after four years locked in a cell, I’d want to keep prison as far from my mind as possible. And yet I regularly get mail from correctional facilities; I accept phone calls from inmates. This is what happens when you become an advocate for the wrongly convicted. It’s something my friend Jason has known for decades—he’s a founding board member of the Innocence Project. He also hosts his own podcast, Wrongful Conviction, where he, too, has delved into the injustice of Jens Soering’s imprisonment.
And we aren’t alone. Angela Merkel brought his case up with President Obama. Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Minister of Justice, lent his support, as has Walter Sullivan, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. There’s also John Grisham, Martin Sheen, and law enforcement professionals like Chip Harding, Richard Hudson, and Andy Griffiths. And yet, with all these voices raising awareness, for decades, Jens rotted in Buckingham Correctional.
DNA science was in its infancy when Jens was on trial in 1990, and it was not allowed in court, but they were able to test blood type. Jens has type O blood, and there was type O blood found at the crime scene. Lead prosecutor Jim Updike drew the jury’s attention to that type-O blood twenty-six times, each reference another nail in his eventual conviction. Only a few years later, DNA testing was routine, but Jens had to fight until 2016 to get that type-O blood tested. And guess what…it excluded him, and indicated the presence of two unknown males. Two independent DNA tests confirmed these results in 2017. But that didn’t magically spirit Jens from his cell. He was not exonerated. He was not granted a new trial. His appeals had been exhausted, and Bedford County authorities just didn’t care. A pardon petition seemed to be his last hope.
This is the hard truth: It takes more than DNA to free the innocent. It takes political will and courage. And for Jens, that political will was severely endangered by a medical school yearbook photo. His pardon petition to Governor Ralph Northam was a longshot to begin with, but this was made even worse by the blackface scandal that engulfed Northam’s administration. While facing such scrutiny, the chances that Northam would grant Jens a pardon effectively vanished.
Jens was not a “perfect” victim. He had, after all (like the Central Park Five, like so many wrongfully convicted people) confessed to the crime. But the evidence for Jens’s innocence and the strength of his advocacy continued to mount, to the point that it couldn’t be ignored, even by the politically embattled governor of Virginia. Finally, on November 25th, Northam announced that Jens had been paroled on the condition that he would be immediately deported to Germany and barred from entering the U.S. ever again.
This parole is bittersweet. Jens has finally gained his freedom, but not the restoration of his reputation. I know exactly what that’s like. Even a definitive acquittal, like mine, doesn’t guarantee that people will believe in your innocence. I also know what Jens will be facing as he walks out of the airport in his home country and smells the air of Germany for the first time in three decades, as he makes the obligatory statement to the journalists, as he maneuvers to escape the paparazzi. He’s entering the world of freedom, and it will be as bewildering as prison was to his 18-year-old self. And he’s doing so while still carrying the burden of a murder conviction.
This is the first time I’ve become so personally invested in one innocent man’s case. And it nearly broke me. Jason has been on this road time and again. He’s been deeply, personally involved in dozens of exonerations. He’s also been there, on the other side of the glass, for the many more who didn’t get a happy ending.
What haunts me is, what would have happened to Jens if Jason and I and the myriad other people who advocated on his behalf hadn’t taken the time? Would Jens have died in prison? If it takes all the skill and tenacity of DNA scientists, false confession experts, investigative journalists, novelists, podcasters, heads of state, and teams of lawyers offering thousands of hours of pro-bono work, just to get one innocent man paroled—not even exonerated—what hope is there for the innocent people—disproportionately people of color—whose cases go unnoticed, just another notch on a prosecutor’s conviction record?
A week after I learned that Jens had been granted parole, my phone rang again. I was in the baking aisle of the grocery store. A call from an inmate in Virginia. I dropped my shopping list and answered. The first thing Jens told me: This is the last time I’ll ever call you from a prison phone. I could hear the muted enthusiasm in his voice, the unwillingness to really believe it was true until he had actually left those prison walls. He had so many questions. And he looked to me—a woman twenty years his junior—for advice.
Jason calls me his little sister and, occasionally, his spirit animal. It’s because I’ve thrown myself into the trenches, right alongside him, trying to raise awareness of the flaws in our criminal justice system and help free innocent people from prison—a task which is so much harder than it should be. Jens calls me his big sister. Because I’ve been through the circus he’s about to enter, and he needs all the help he can get adjusting to freedom after thirty-three years, seven months, and four days unjustly incarcerated. I’m just honored to have followed in the footsteps of devoted advocates like Jason, and contributed even a little to the drive to get Jens out of prison. I’m honored to have received his call.
And as the relief and joy of this much-too-rare, life-changing moment washed over me, I had to step back into my daily life and my seemingly endless routines. Back to the gym to climb a virtual mountain on the elliptical machine—an activity that I took for granted until very recently, when all of society was forced into quarantine by the coronavirus. We’re now panicking about how to flatten the curve of this rising mountain of infection. It’s a challenge I hope we’re up to. But on the other side of this crisis, the mountains that stand between people like Jens and their freedom will still be there as we all head back to the gym. It makes me wonder about the search-and-rescue missions necessary for saving them peopled mostly by volunteers like Jason, and what it would take to level that mountain off even a little, so the heights we have to climb to save a single innocent person aren’t so steep.