Steven Avery, at the age of 22, was wrongfully convicted of rape. He spent almost 20 years in prison before being exonerated through DNA testing.
On July 29, 1985, at approximately 3:50 p.m., Penny Ann Beernsten was out running along the Lake Michigan shoreline and was apprehended by an unknown man who forced her into a wooded area and sexually assaulted her.
Investigation and Trial
Based on a physical description of Beernsten’s attacker, police provided a photo array of nine men. Beernsten selected the photograph of Steven Avery, who was arrested the following day.
At trial, Beernsten identified Avery as her attacker. A state forensic examiner testified that a hair recovered from a shirt of Avery’s was consistent with Beernsten’s hair, but did not present qualifying information about the limitations of hair microscopy.
Avery presented 16 alibi witnesses, including the clerk of a store in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who recalled Avery, accompanied by his wife and five children, buying paint from the store. A checkout tape put the purchase at 5:13 p.m. Beernsten put the attack at 3:50 p.m. and estimated it lasted 15 minutes, which meant that Avery would have had to leave the scene of the attack, walk a mile to the nearest parking area, drive home, load his family into the car, and drive 45 miles in just over an hour.
The jury deliberated for only four hours and convicted Avery almost exclusively on the eyewitness account, on December 14, 1985. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
After losing several appeals, a petition for DNA testing was granted in 1995 and showed that scrapings taken of Beernsten’s fingernails contained the DNA of an unknown person. The tests were unable to eliminate Avery, however, and a motion for a new trial was denied.
In April of 2002, attorneys for the Wisconsin Innocence Project obtained a court order for DNA testing of 13 hairs recovered from Beernsten at the time of the crime. The state crime laboratory reported that, using the FBI DNA database, it had linked a hair to Gregory Allen, a convicted felon who bore a striking resemblance to Avery. Allen was then serving a 60-year prison term for a sexual assault in Green Bay that occurred after the attack on Beernsten.
On September 11, 2003, a request brought by the Manitowoc District Attorney’s Office and the Wisconsin Innocence Project to dismiss the charges was granted and Avery was released.
In 2005, with support from Beernsten and Avery, the Wisconsin Department of Justice adopted a model eyewitness identification protocol.
On October 31, 2005, 25-year-old Teresa Halbach was murdered. Avery and his nephew were convicted in separate trials and were both sentenced to life in prison.
Charge: Sexual Assault, Attempted Murder, False Imprisonment
Conviction: Sexual Assault, Attempted Murder, False Imprisonment
Sentence: 32 years
Incident Date: 07/29/1985
Exoneration Date: 09/11/2003
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: Caucasian
Race of Victim: Caucasian
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: Hair Analysis