‘Making A Murderer’s Penny Beerntsen Describes The Agony She Felt Over Steven Avery's Wrongful Imprisonment
Netflix's runaway hit Making a Murderer primarily focuses on what happened to Steven Avery after he was exonerated for sexual assault. But that does not change the fact that he spent 18 years of his life in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Now, as Avery is back in the spotlight, the Manitowoc County woman at the center of the rape trial has spoken out about her part in sending the wrong person to prison. Penny Beerntsen described the agony she felt when she found out, saying that "the day I learned of the exoneration was worse than the day I was assaulted."
In 1985, Beerntsen was running by her house in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, when she was attacked and raped by an assailant. During the authorities' investigation, she was shown a photo lineup, followed by a live lineup. Beerntsen picked Avery out as her assailant in both. Avery was subsequently arrested, charged, and convicted for rape. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison, and he served 18 of those years before new DNA evidence was presented that exonerated him.
On Tuesday, the Marshall Project published a first-person essay by Beerntsen, who described exactly what it felt like to learn that her testimony had sent an innocent man to prison, and how she's dealt with unshakable regret and remorse ever since.
In the opening paragraph, Beerntsen writes, "After the DNA results came back, I just felt powerless. I can't un-ring this bell. I can't give Steve back the years that he's lost." She also describes the agony she felt for Avery's family:
The man I misidentified was 23 years old at the time. He had five children and twin sons who were just a few days old. There was really no physical evidence connecting the two of us. It was a she-said-he-said case. And my testimony sent an innocent person to prison. His kids have grown up without him. I absolutely wanted the earth to swallow me.
But until Avery was exonerated, Beerntsen was convinced that he was the attacker. In the piece, she also describes a different kind of internal turmoil that she endured as she fought back thoughts of doubt that others would plant in her, forced to relive the crime over and over each time someone questioned her testimony.
At one point, this must have been a good dozen years after the crime, Craig approached me and he said, "Are you sure that Steven Avery was the guy who attacked you? Because his wife Lori insists she was with him all day and that he couldn't possibly have committed it." And I remember saying, "No, I'm really sure." But that planted the first seed of doubt.
I would find a way to explain away any bit of information that suggested he was innocent.
Every time she had to defend her testimony, she was forced to relive her nightmare all over again.
There's this nonstop video of the crime going through your head.
But Beerntsen was able to reach some closure and quell her emotional and mental torment when she met Avery after his exoneration. In 2004, Beerntsen sat down with Avery, first alone, and then with his parents.
We sat down, and he is a person of very few words, although he was polite and attentive. When we finished I said, "I would welcome the opportunity to apologize to your parents, but I totally understand if they don't want to be in the same room with me."
His response was, "I think my mom would be OK, but I think my dad is very bitter." And then he apologized for his dad's bitterness. I remember saying, "Steve, I have a son. If someone accused my son of doing to a woman what I accused you of doing to me, I would be bitter if I knew that my son was innocent."
The most remarkable part of that memory is how calm Avery seemed, as if he had already forgiven Beerntsen.
When it was time to leave, Steve gave me this big bear hug, and I said, "Steve, I am so sorry." And he said, "It's OK, Penny. It's over." Maybe it was just a line. But it felt sincere to me at the time.
Beerntsen did not talk to the filmmakers of Making a Murderer because, she explained, they were too close to Avery and his family. As she continues to heal from her attack and put the case behind her, she is now offering hints into Avery's murder case. In her essay, Beerntsen recounts how law enforcement officers reportedly discouraged her from asking about other suspects in her rape.
The police department had called me a couple weeks after the assault and said they had another suspect in mind. They didn't give me a name, but it turns out it was Gregory Allen. I hung up and I called the sheriff and said, "What's this about another suspect?" I was told, "Do not talk to the police department, it will only confuse you."
Even after Avery was exonerated, Beerntsen says she felt that the Manitowoc County departments were acting strange. She describes having the odd sense that nobody thought they had done anything wrong.
One of the things that really troubled me is that I was one of the only people who apologized to Steve. It would have been nice if the prosecutor and sheriff had said, "Actually, we all got it wrong." I felt like I was the only one taking any responsibility.
Images: Netflix (2)