Jens Soering, a shy, studious son of a German diplomat, pledged that he would do anything to prove his love for Elizabeth Haysom, a worldly daughter of a South African industrialist. They'd met when both enrolled at the University of Virginia in the mid-1980s as Echols Scholars in a program that brings together the school's brightest freshmen.
After Haysom's parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Lynchburg home 11 years ago, Soering confessed to the killings -- even though, at his trial, he changed his story and, to no avail, pleaded not guilty.
By then, Elizabeth Haysom already had pleaded guilty to encouraging Soering to kill her parents, who had objected to the relationship and threatened to disinherit her. But she denied committing the acts herself, contending that she was 150 miles away from the scene on the day of the killings, buying tickets at a movie theater in Georgetown to establish alibis for her and her boyfriend.
Today, with that young romance long over -- and after the killings inspired two books and a made-for-tele\vision movie -- Soering returned to the courtroom where he was found guilty in 1990. Now a sober-faced 30-year-old lifer, Soering was asking to have his conviction overturned on the ground that his original attorney had been denied evidence that could have linked Haysom and a couple of drifters to the murders. Soering's new attorney, former Virginia deputy attorney general Gail Starling Marshall, argued that Haysom's accomplices could have been two men who were picked up a week after the killings near the scene -- and who fatally stabbed a homeless man the next month in Roanoke.
Marshall suggested that a knife believed to have belonged to one of the men could have been the murder weapon, which was not found.
The state, represented today by Assistant Attorney General John H. McLees, countered that the murders were dissimilar -- the homeless victim was robbed and sexually assaulted, while the Haysoms were not assaulted, and money and valuables were left behind.
Elizabeth's father was stabbed 37 times and her mother's head was almost severed in a bloody butchering at Loose Chippings, their ranch home, on March 30, 1985. Derek Haysom, 72, was a retired South African steel magnate, and his wife, Nancy Haysom, 53, was a distant relative of Virginia-born Lady Astor, the first woman elected to the British Parliament.
After the slayings, which weren't discovered for five days, Soering and Haysom fled to England, where they lived under assumed names until they were arrested in 1986 for passing bad checks.
Elizabeth Haysom was returned home, where she pleaded guilty in 1987 to planning, but not committing, the murders. She had made a statement to British police saying: "I did it myself. . . . I got off on it." But she denied that statement at her trial in Virginia.
Haysom is serving a 90-year sentence at the Virginia Women's Correctional Center near Richmond.
Soering fought extradition for four years, during which time he confessed the killings to West German authorities who'd come to England to question him. He sought to be tried in his native country, where, he speculated, he would be tried as a juvenile and receive a light sentence. He agreed to return to the United States after prosecutors in Virginia agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Today, Bedford County Circuit Court Judge William Sweeney, who presided at the original trials, heard from half a dozen witnesses. He will hear summary arguments Tuesday and then weigh whether to grant Soering a new trial.
Soering, who is serving a life sentence at the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Southwest Virginia, did not speak at the hearing. Except for a weight loss, he looked little different from the man who stood trial six years ago.
Even if Soering loses his appeal here, Marshall said, she plans other appeals in federal court.
Marshall, who met Soering for the first time at the courthouse today, took the case after she was contacted by a mutual friend of Soering's father, who was the West German consul in Detroit at the time of the killings.
Marshall contends that Sweeney should have recused himself from the trials because he was a lifelong friend of Nancy Haysom's brother and because a magazine article published the day Soering's trial began quoted Sweeney as saying he believed Soering was the killer.
Soering is pressing his appeal outside the courtroom, also. Last month, Marshall said, he sent a letter to Elizabeth Haysom, now 32, urging her to "tell the truth at least. As only you and I know," he wrote, "there is already one innocent man in prison for the crime you committed; me." Elizabeth Haysom, who was denied a request for parole last year, did not respond.
CAPTION: Elizabeth Haysom did not respond to a plea from Jens Soering to clear his name in the 1985 murders of her parents. Soering is pursuing a new appeal.