A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same since the publication of Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties” in The New Yorker magazine a month ago. The article charted the torturous situation and complicated criminal case of our author Jens Soering, who was convicted of a double murder in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1986, and who has long asked to be repatriated from the U.S. to his native Germany to serve the remainder of his sentence. “Blood Ties” was long and involved, and was read, according to Heller in a private correspondence with me (Martin R0we), “apparently avidly and closely” by around a million Americans. Soering’s response was a combination of despairing and furious. He considered the article an unmitigated disaster for his case and wrote me and others to tell me so. He demanded (because I was a “fair” man) that I post his correction/rebuttal, in which he details the errors, as he sees them, in Heller’s piece. You can read it here.
In his email to me, Heller observed that one (perhaps incidental) result of his article was that “Richmond has seemingly been feeling new pressure toward a repatriation decision.” One fascinating wrinkle of Soering’s case, which “Blood Ties” (for reasons of room, perhaps, as much as anything) had not delved deeply into, was that, in 2009, in one of his last acts as governor of Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine had signed a repatriation order for Soering. This order was then rescinded by incoming governor, Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in a decision apparently unique in U.S. history and possibly unconstitutional. McDonnell will soon enough find himself a prisoner, convicted of fraud and extortion. In 2014, McDonnell was replaced in the governor’s mansion by Terry McAuliffe—and it is on him that Soering’s legal team are applying “new pressure” to reinstate Kaine’s order.
Almost from the outset, Soering’s case acquired a political dimension. In Germany, Soering has been profiled on national media and his case has become exemplary for everything the Germans consider cruel and unusual about American criminal justice. Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Soering’s repatriation with President Barack Obama, and the case was examined by Eric Holder, then the U.S. Attorney General. But many in the Commonwealth of Virginia—the home of Thomas Jefferson and, in some ways, the omphalos of “states” rights—have always dug their heels in whenever the name of Jens Soering is invoked. This time was no different. On December 6, the Lynchburg News & Advance, the local newspaper that has covered the murder story for thirty years, wrote an editorial that Soering should do his time where he did his crime. Four days later, Nathan Heller wrote a follow-up piece on The New Yorker‘s website, in which he revealed that, following the editorial, eighteen Republican state delegates had written to McAuliffe not to allow the repatriation—a decision that Heller found puzzling, especially since, he wrote, the case against Soering wasn’t strong and that he might, indeed, be “possibly innocent.”
Before he was governor, McAuliffe was a head of the Democratic National Committee (2001-5), and before that a prolific fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton. As the more perceptive of you may have noticed, it is now campaign season, and it is likely that Soering will become even more of a political football than he always has been. No Democrat will be want to be painted as soft on crime, especially in a swing-state like Virginia, and especially on a matter that pits international and federal interests against states’ rights. It is an irony lost on no one—including Soering or his supporters—the best option for his repatriation might be that he’s whisked away on a plane without anyone noticing he’s gone. That solution, which would solve a lot of peoples’ problems, is one that Soering, Heller, Lantern Books, and yours truly (at the request of the prisoner himself) are making less likely to happen.