Naperville woman still dealing with long-ago assault
Nov 29, 2010
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, under whose jurisdiction the case fell, moved quickly after the attack. A local man awaiting trial for allegedly attempting to assault the wife of a Manitowoc County sheriff’s deputy matched the description of Beerntsen’s assailant. She picked him out of both a photo and live lineup. Although Steven Avery had an alibi for the time of the attack, he was charged with first-degree sexual assault, first-degree attempted murder and false imprisonment. He was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison.
But after serving 18 years, DNA evidence cleared him and pointed to a man named Gregory Allen who already was serving a 60-year sentence for rape. Avery was released from prison in 2003 and became a local celebrity and the face of the Wisconsin Innocence Project that worked to free wrongly convicted prisoners.
Beerntsen was overcome with remorse for Avery’s incarceration and for Allen’s continued crimes.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I knew Steven Avery wasn’t a Boy Scout, but nobody should serve time for a crime they didn’t commit. ... I just wanted the earth to swallow me. I swear that day was harder than the day I was assaulted.”
....When Beerntsen learned of Avery’s innocence, she sent a letter of apology and offered to meet with him, much like in the victim-offender mediations she facilitated in the past. Only this time, she considered herself the offender.
“He was very gracious,” she said of their meeting. “The day he was released from prison, he said, ‘I don’t blame the victim. It’s not her fault’ I always say that’s one of the most grace-filled things that’s ever been said to me.”
Beernsten accepts responsibility for her mistaken identification. But research shows it’s not unusual for victims to be wrong. During traumatic events, memories are often inaccurate and recall can be distorted by post-event information. In Beerntsen’s case, she had been informed of Avery’s prior arrests by sheriff’s deputies. She also heard others voice suspicions of his guilt.