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Soering's ex-lawyer suspended

Board rules murder defense was botched

(by Ian Zack, Daily Progress staff writer, July 28, 1996)

Jens Soering may be serving two life sentences for a double murder conviction, but he isn't just languishing behind bars hoping for the possibility of a retrial to prove his innocence.

From his cell in Keen Mountain Correctional Center, the former University of Virginia honors student has managed to get his former attorney suspended from practicing law for mishandling portions of his defense.

The Michigan Attorney Discipline Board has found attorney Richard A. Neaton guilty of five counts of misconduct and suspended him from practicing law for four years according to official records obtained by The Daily Progress.

Neaton was Soering's lead defense attorney in his 1990 trial for the knife slayings of Derek and Nancy Haysom of Lynchburg.

Soering, 29, initially confessed to the crime, but during and since his trial he has maintained he lied to protect his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, a fellow UVa honors student.  Soering maintains that Haysom killed her parents without his prior knowledge.

Haysom, who is serving a 90-year prison term as an accessory, claimed she convinced Soering to kill her parents and denies participating in the crime herself.

Soering has waged a series of appeals, the most recent before the Virginia Supreme Court, which denied the majority of his claims, including his contention that the judge and jury at his original trial in Bedford County were biased and that Neaton provided ineffective counsel for his defense.

From prison in November 1995, Soering filed six misconduct charges against Neaton, and the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board in February ruled in his favor on four of the counts.

Researching the matter without the help of his new attorney, UVa law professor Gail Marshall, Soering appealed and the board overturned another count that previously was dismissed.

Among the findings against Neaton:
  • He failed to competently handle Soering's habeas corpus appeal following his trial.
  • He misappropriated $5,000 of Soering's funds, lied to him about obtaining witnesses and created phony affidavits with fictitious notary signatures as proof of his work on the case.
  • He refused to turn over files to Soering once the client decided to drop Neaton as his attorney.
By telephone from prison, Soering said Wednesday the board's action is further evidence supporting his claim that Neaton failed to provide a competent defense of the murder charges against him.

"How could the Virginia Supreme Court simply dismiss without hearing my.argument that Neaton rendered ineffective assistance of counsel, when the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board just now convicted him of neglecting my appeal and stealing nearly $6,000 from my family?"  Soering said. "I guess in Michigan, they realize that sometimes like in this case the justice system makes mistakes."

Neaton, who was licensed in Michigan and received a special waiver to handle Soering's case in Virginia, now lives in Florida.

Reached by telephone, he reacted angrily to Soering's remarks.

"I just think Jens' attempt to use this is rude and self-serving," Neaton said Wednesday.  "Jens is in prison because he made a conscious decision to help Elizabeth Haysom.  I was his lawyer, not his magician."

Neaton said he felt entitled to the money he kept of Soering's because of thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expenses he incurred during the defense.

He said he plans to appeal the board's decision against him, but he declined to address the charge that he manufactured affidavits, saying attorney-client privilege prevented him from doing so.

Neaton still said he hoped Soering gets a new trial but added there is "no love lost" between the two of them now.

The misconduct finding against Neaton was not his first.

The same discipline board suspended Neaton's license to practice law in Michigan in 1993 in a case unrelated to Soering.

The board found Neaton guilty of misuse of client funds and lying to a client.

In defense of those charges, Neaton wrote that his ability to practice law was "materially impaired by an emotional or mental disability" during a three-year period that included the time of Soering's original trial.

Soering will have one more chance to make his case in Bedford sometimes this year.  The Virginia Supreme court granted an evidentiary hearing on his claim that Bedford County investigators withheld evidence from the defense of other possible suspects in the Haysom murders.Marshall, a former Virginia deputy attorney general who vehemently believes in Soering's innocence, said she will appeal his case in federal court if state appeals are exhausted.
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