Peggy Beernsten's essay on learning she wrongly accused Steven Avery of rape.

What It Feels Like to Send an Innocent Person to Prison for 18 Years

What It Feels Like to Send an Innocent Person to Prison for 18 Years

The Slatest
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Jan. 5 2016 12:46 PM

What It Feels Like to Send an Innocent Person to Prison for 18 Years  

Steven Avery, Making A Murderer Mugshot
Steven Avery from the Netflix original documentary series Making a Murderer.

Courtesy of Netflix

The hit Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer is primarily focused on the flawed prosecution of Steven Avery in the 2005 killing of a young photographer. But the set-up to that story centers on a different, earlier crime: the rape of a woman named Penny Beernsten that took place in 1985, which was blamed on Avery based on Beernsten’s testimony before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003.

Leon Neyfakh Leon Neyfakh

Leon Neyfakh is a Slate staff writer.

One of the most riveting moments in the otherwise flabby and scattered Netflix series arrives when Avery sees Beernsten at a public event after his exoneration and gives her a hug. On Tuesday, thanks to a first-person piece written by Beernsten and published by the Marshall Project, we find out what Beernsten—who declined to be interviewed for the documentary—was thinking in that moment, and what it’s been like for her knowing that she unintentionally sent an innocent person to prison for almost 20 years.

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“The day I learned of the exoneration was worse than the day I was assaulted,” Beernsten writes. She continues: “I absolutely wanted the earth to swallow me.”

The essay offers a window onto a form of guilt and shame that most of us are lucky to never experience, and is worth reading for that reason alone. It’s also just a harrowing piece of writing, thanks to Beernsten’s willingness to detail the leaps she had to make in her mind to wave away doubts about Avery’s guilt while he was in prison, and the anger she felt as the Innocence Project tried to defend the person she believed to be her rapist.

Describing the aftermath of Avery’s exoneration, Beernsten writes, “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.” She also expresses frustration at the flawed methods the police used in leading her to identify Avery from a lineup, and their subsequent unwillingness to acknowledge their role in what happened. “One of the things that really troubled me is that I was one of the only people who apologized to Steve,” Beernsten writes. “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.”

Fans of Making a Murderer, along with anyone else who is curious about the turmoil that comes with testifying against the wrong person, should read the whole essay.