BEDFORD, VA. -- Is Jens Soering a vicious killer who slaughtered the parents of his former girlfriend, or a hopelessly naive romantic so smitten he was willing at one time to face the electric chair to protect the woman he loved?
The first week of the former University of Virginia honor student's double-murder trial hasn't produced an answer to that question.
But the opening days in the Bedford County courtroom offered one major surprise last week: a defense strategy built on the premise that his statements to police admitting the slayings were a lie, and that it was girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom who killed her parents.
Defense lawyers refused to attack elements of Soering's statement to detectives in London four years ago, despite its bloody details about the slashing deaths of Derek and Nancy Haysom and potentially damaging impact on the case.
The lawyers, contending the statement was a lie, opted to cast doubt on whether the statement was obtained legally.
Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Updike has stuck to his premise that Elizabeth Haysom, who is serving 90 years for being an accessory to the murders, so despised her parents that she manipulated Soering into killing them, something she quickly regretted.
Soering, who once was indicted for capital murder, no longer faces the death penalty because of a diplomatic agreement that reduced the charges to two counts of first-degree murder.
Spectators have been drawn to this small community between Roanoke and Lynchburg by the players in the drama.
One man acknowledged he has been driving 90 minutes from the New River Valley every day to hear why two U-Va. honor students -- one the son of a West German diplomat and the other the privileged daughter of an international couple -- got involved in plotting murder five years ago.
Curious onlookers and the 14 jurors imported from Nelson County have been bombarded with lurid testimony about the love lives of Soering and Haysom, and about the March 1985 weekend they drove to Washington, where Haysom supposedly stayed behind in a heroin-induced stupor to create an alibi while Soering returned to Bedford County to confront her parents.
Jurors listened as a medical examiner described how the Haysoms' attacker stabbed and slashed them 50 times, including deep heart wounds and throat cuts so severe that Nancy Haysom was all but decapitated.
They saw dark, brooding letters between the two lovers as they discussed each other's "dark sides" and wrote about the possibility of "doing voodoo" on the Haysoms, a detail London tabloids headlined after the couple fled the United States and were arrested in England on check fraud charges.
"Why don't my parents just lie down and die?" Haysom asked in one letter. "I despise them so much."
The courtroom fell silent Thursday as Bedford County Investigator Ricky Gardner recounted Soering's untaped statement to police in 1986, the statements defense lawyers Richard Neaton and William Cleaveland hope to persuade jurors to ignore.
Gardner explained how Soering said he watched Derek Haysom's blood flow into his lap when the defendant cut his throat after a violent argument in which the Haysoms told him he wasn't good enough for their daughter. He recalled how Soering described Nancy Haysom stumbling toward the kitchen clutching her bleeding neck.
If Elizabeth Haysom testifies this week, she is likely to repeat her testimony at the trial in 1987 when she described her horror at the blood on Soering when he returned to Washington to pick her up from a showing of the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
As yet, clashes between the strong-willed lawyers battling the case have been limited to a few sarcastic exchanges cut short by Bedford Judge William Sweeney.
The trial originally was scheduled to last two weeks, but Sweeney warned jurors that it could take longer. With Haysom's expected testimony yet to come, and the defense still waiting to present its case, few believe the saga will be over by the end of this week.