Who Is Penny Beerntsen? 'Making A Murderer' Begins With Her Assault

Though nearly a month since being released, Netflix's Making A Murderer continues to make waves with citizen detectives who are hoping to unravel the complex story that is Steven Avery. Once wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit, Avery is currently behind bars again for the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. His first conviction, however, puts his current sentence into bizarre context. So, who is Penny Beerntsen, a woman whose sexual assault put Avery in prison for 18 years?

On July 29, 1985, Beerntsen and her husband Tom were at the beach on Lake Michigan. At around 3 p.m., Beerntsen began to jog north by herself along the shore. She passed a person wearing a black leather jacket, which was strange to see since it was a hot summer day. On her way back, she saw the same man from earlier, but when she tried to pass him, he grabbed and dragged her into the woods. He attempted to rape her but failed, instead sexually assaulting, beating, and leaving her for dead.

In the end, the police investigation led to Avery, whom Beerntsen picked out in a lineup. Avery, then 23, was sentenced to 32 years for sexual assault, attempted murder, and false imprisonment. After spending 18 years in prison and filing numerous appeals, Avery was released in 2003 on new DNA evidence that proved another man, Gregory Allen, was Beerntsen's attacker, thus clearing him of the assault.

Through the Forgiveness Project, Beerntsen shared the story of when she and Avery first met after he was released from prison. The account is heart-wrenching, and Beerntsen is unafraid to admit that she has struggled with forgiving herself for putting Avery behind bars.

When Steve and I met, it occurred to me that our handshake was the first physical contact we'd ever had, yet our lives have been intertwined for nearly two decades. Since the exoneration it sometimes feels as if I’m living in some parallel universe where the usual rules no longer apply. I’m still struggling. The most difficult thing in all this is being able to forgive myself.

What's important to note is that these interviews took place before Avery was convicted of murdering Halbach in 2005. It's unclear how Beerntsen feels about Avery's second conviction. By that year, Beerntsen was in Naperville, Illinois with her family. As of 2013, it appeared Beerntsen returned to Wisconsin with her husband, who was named president and CEO of the Door County YMCA. Beerntsen also has two children and two young granddaughters.

With renewed interest in Avery's case, Beerntsen plays a key role in viewers' understanding of his story and whether or not a man could twice be convicted for crimes he did not commit.

Images: Netflix