Penny Beernsten, who mistakenly identified “Making of a Murderer” subject Steven Avery as the man who raped her in 1985, says she “felt powerless” after DNA results showed she had sent the wrong man to jail and “absolutely wanted the earth to swallow” her.
“There was really no physical evidence connecting the two of us,” she said in an interview with The Marshall Project. “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.”
In 1985, Beerntsen was raped while running along the beach in Wisconsin. After she identified Avery as the perpetrator, he was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
In 2003, DNA evidence revealed that the real assailant was Gregory Allen, and Avery was freed after 18 years behind bars. Avery was subsequently charged with murdering a woman named Teresa Halbach, a case chronicled in Netflix’s documentary series.
Before Avery’s exoneration in her case, Beernsten said she had her first sense of doubt when a teacher of Avery’s two sons asked her, “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.” She said she was sure, but she really wasn’t, she said.
When she learned that Avery didn’t wear underwear — her assailant did — Beernsten felt troubled. When he was finally exonerated, she said she wanted to apologize to his parents.
“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.'”
She said Avery told her that he didn’t blame her, but rather police he suspected of framing him.
“One of the things that really troubled me is that I was one of the only people who apologized to Steve,” she added. “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.”
After the exoneration, she told her therapist that she still sees “Steven Avery as my assailant even though I understand he wasn’t.” Her therapist told her that she “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.”
Regarding Avery being charged in Halbach’s murder, Beernsten could only say, “my emotions regarding Steven Avery are complicated.”