The woman who mistook Steven Avery for her attacker explains how she learned he was innocent after he'd already spent 18 years in jail

Penny BeerntsenNBCPenny Beerntsen

Beware: “Making a Murderer” spoilers ahead!
Steven Avery, the center of Netflix’s hit docuseries “Making a Murderer,” currently sits behind bars. He was convicted, along with his nephew Brendan Dassey, of killing a young woman on Halloween in 2005.

A lot of people think he is innocent of that crime, aided by the fact that he previously spent 18 years behind bars for another crime he didn’t commit.

Years earlier, in 1985, a woman named Penny Beerntsen was sexually assaulted and attacked while out on a jog. After the attack, she became convinced Steven Avery was her attacker. She chose his photo out of a lineup, and he seemed to match the physical appearance of the man she remembered doing it (though there were some differences between her description and Avery). Avery was sent to jail for nearly two decades, but he was released when a lab analysed a pubic hair found on Beerntsen from the day of the attack, and it matched a known sex offender instead of Steven Avery, Gregory Allen.

Beerntsen had her suspicions that Avery was innocent years before his release. She told NBC in 2005 that in about 1989, she received a phone call from the police department saying they had another suspect in her case that looked a lot like Steven Avery, and they wanted to question her about him.

“I remember hanging up the phone thinking, ‘Oh my God, maybe the wrong person is in custody,'” she told NBC about that conversation. But Beerntsen said she called the local sheriff’s department and was told not to concern herself with any other potential suspect.

“[The sheriff’s department] said, “The Manitowoc police department doesn’t have jurisdiction. We will look into this. Don’t talk to them, it will only confuse you,” she told NBC.

Beerntsen says learning that the wrong man had been sitting in jail for years was a harder day for her than the actual brutal attack. Her husband and a friend broke the news to her in 2005, and Beerntsen says all the colour was drained from their faces.

“That day was much more difficult than the day of the assault for me,” she told NBC back in 2005. “I just couldn’t grasp the magnitude of being an unwitting participant in this huge miscarriage of justice.”

Avery’s lawyers believed the police helped convince Beerntsen that Avery was her attacker instead of Allen. For example, Beerntsen says Allen’s photo wasn’t initially shown to her as a potential suspect, even though the Sheriff’s department had known of his previous sexual crimes.

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