Penny Beernsten, the Rape Victim in ‘Making A Murderer,’ Speaks Out

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
This piece was reported and written by Christie Thompson for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

In 1985, Penny Beerntsen was attacked and raped by a stranger while running along the beach near her home in Wisconsin. After she picked her assailant out of a police lineup, he was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison. For 18 of those years, Beernsten was convinced that her rapist was behind bars. But in 2003, DNA evidence revealed that Steven Avery, the man she identified and the subject of Netflix’s documentary series “Making a Murderer,” was not her attacker. While he sat in prison, the real perpetrator, Gregory Allen, remained free for 10 years before he was arrested on unrelated rape charges.

Netflix’s new series primarily focuses on what happened after Avery's exoneration: two years after he was released, Avery was charged with the murder of another woman, Teresa Halbach. In 2007, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Beernsten declined to speak with the filmmakers partly because she believed the documentarians were too close with Avery’s family and attorneys. “They were very convinced that he was innocent,” Beernsten said. “I was not convinced.” She has since watched the series and thinks it accurately portrays her case.

Below, Beernsten shares, in her own words, what it was like to discover that she had misidentified Avery, and how she feels about him today.
The day I learned of the exoneration was worse than the day I was assaulted. I really fought back when my attacker grabbed me. I scratched him, I kicked him. I did not go gently. After the DNA results came back, I just felt powerless. I can’t unring this bell. I can’t give Steve back the years that he’s lost.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about how memory works, about what good procedures are, about showing lineups to victims. The perpetrator was not in the photo lineup I was shown. I never had an opportunity to identify my actual assailant. It was a simultaneous lineup [where witnesses are shown all photos at once]; there were nine photos, and I looked carefully at each one, and picked Steven Avery’s. The sheriff later put together a live lineup. There were eight men, and I again picked Steven Avery. He was the only person who was in both, so it’s logical that I would pick him.

After the exoneration, there was a lot of publicity. Steve was made out to be a hero, and I went from having sympathy to being this horrible person who made a mistake, and is responsible for someone else’s suffering. The first time I went out in public, an acquaintance of mine said, "I can’t believe you’re brave enough to show your face."

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.

Steve had always maintained his innocence. They ran an ad in the newspaper trying to raise money for attorney fees. A friend of mine saw it and called me and said, “I just wanted to let you know that Steve’s running ads saying he’s innocent.” Every time he was granted an appeal, it’s like, am I going to be called to testify again? There’s this nonstop video of the crime going through your head.

I lived across the street from a gentleman who was a teacher at the school that Steve’s twin sons attended. And he had them in class. 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. In the trial, I had testified that when the perpetrator unzipped his pants and exposed himself, I saw white fabric and I assumed he was wearing white underwear. His wife testified that Steve never wore underwear, he didn’t own any underwear. So that troubled me. But then one day I’m hanging clothes on a clothesline outside, and I see the white pockets on the jeans and I think, Oh, that’s why I saw white.

When the Innocence Project took the case, I just fell apart. I was angry. Does this mean that every time technology improves, he’s going to get another opportunity? Isn’t there anything to this concept of judicial finality? I called the victim coordinator and said if there’s going to be any kind of hearing, I want to be notified, and I want to be in court, because I want the Innocence Project attorneys to have to look at my face and see that there’s a survivor behind this crime, and that this is just hell to be going through this again.

The first time I was in court, Keith [Findley of the Innocence Project] came up to me and said, “I’m very sorry, this must be very difficult for you. I know you went through a horrendous assault.” And think I snapped back with something snarky like, “I wish I could believe you were sincere.” Now I consider Keith Findley a friend. He and the other attorneys at the Innocence Project have always been very victim-sensitive.

[By the time the DNA testing was done but before the results came back,] I think I had calmed down a little. A part of that was thinking, Gosh, Steve got a 32-year sentence. That’s a pretty long sentence when you’re 23 years old. The next time he comes up for parole, maybe I won’t write to the parole board objecting to him being released. But I still was pretty convinced that he was my perpetrator.

The day I met Steve [in February 2004], my heart was beating so hard, I thought I’m going to have a heart attack. 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 okay, 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. Your dad knew that you were innocent because you were with your family that day.”

Much to their credit, his parents agreed to hear what I had to say. They were even more nonverbal than Steve was. I said, “Do you have any questions of me?” And Delores, his mother, just shrugged and said, “There’s really not much to say.” 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 okay, Penny. It’s over.” Maybe it was just a line. But it felt sincere to me at the time.

The day he was released from prison in September, he said, “I don’t blame the victim, what happened to her was horrible. It’s the cops that set me up.”

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.

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.”

A few months after I met Steve, he left a message for me. So I called him and he was kind of beating around the bush. He was telling me how he didn’t have any money, he couldn’t get a job, he was living on his parent’s property, and it wasn’t going well. He wanted to get his own place to live and it would really be nice to have a house. I finally came out and said, “Steve, are you asking me to buy you a house?” And he said yes. I said, “That’s not possible. We probably should not be talking to each other. I will be deposed in your civil suit.” He was cordial, he wasn’t abusive or anything. It was just clear he wanted money from me. I called job services and passed that along to his attorney, but I don’t know if he ever followed up with them.

I saw a therapist after the assault, and then after the exoneration, I saw a therapist again. I said to my second therapist, “I’ve seen a picture of Gregory Allen and he doesn’t look real to me. I would swear I’ve never seen him before in my life. I look at his picture, I can’t feel angry, I think he could walk in the room and my blood pressure wouldn’t even go up. I still see Steven Avery as my assailant even though I understand he wasn’t.”

Her response was, “You will never be able to attach the emotions that you felt at the time of the assault or in the ensuing years to Gregory Allen. What you need to work on is removing those feelings from Steven Avery.”

Then I get a call that a young woman has gone missing and that the last place she was seen was on Steven Avery’s property. So my emotions regarding Steven Avery are complicated.

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