In the new Netflix docuseries Making A Murderer, the case of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully charged of sexual assault and then later convicted of murder, is explored under a microscope. Though Avery is currently serving a contested sentence for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, his story originally began with a sexual assault charge in 1985. After serving 18 of his 32-year sentence for the assault, Avery was released after DNA evidence instead linked a man named Gregory Allen to the crime. But who is Gregory Allen, and how did this mix up lead to a wrongful conviction?
In late July 1985, a 36-year-old woman named Penny Ann Beerntsen was sexually assaulted along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, according to the University of Michigan Law School's Registry of Exonerations. Following the attack that left her choked and unconscious, Beerntsen incorrectly identified her assailant as Avery, who bore a remarkable resemblance to her actual attacker, Allen. Despite the 16 alibi witnesses who testified on Avery's behalf, he was put behind bars after a state forensic serologist testified that a hair consistent with Beerntsen's had been found on Avery's clothing.
After his multiple attempts at appeals failed, the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Crime Laboratory were able to conduct DNA testing of hair that was found on Beerntsen at the scene of the crime. They found that the hair belonged to Allen, not Avery, and Avery had his charges dismissed and was released from prison in 2003. Police were able to pinpoint Allen because he was already serving a 60-year prison term for a sexual assault that took place after the one committed against Beerntsen.
Prior to the assault, Allen's rap sheet had already caught the attention of police. He had been convicted three times for violent and drug-related felonies, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel originally reported. Fearing that he was likely to commit sexual offenses, police authorized daily surveillance of Allen just 12 days before the attack on Beerntsen took place. Though police eventually upped the visits to 14 times per day, they were only allowed one check-in on Allen at that time.
After the assault took place, Allen's records show that he was suspected or convicted of an additional 10 crimes, ranging from peeping in windows to sexual assault.
Since the wrongful conviction came to light, Beerntsen has become a vocal advocate of criminal justice reform. According to a report by Madison.com, after Beerntsen was told of Avery's wrongful conviction, she said:
The day [my attorney] told me was much worse than the day I was assaulted. I just wanted the earth to swallow me. ... Every wrongful conviction is also a wrongful acquittal.
Though Avery's guilt and innocence are still contested matters in the Halbach murder case, at least the injustice of the sexual assault charge has been cleared up, and the true criminal behind that case is now behind bars.