The Murder of Teresa Halbach
Avery's False Conviction
Avery Auto Salvage sits on a large tract of land and contains roughly 3,800 vehicles in various states of decay. Most of the dilapidated vehicles are kept for their parts, which are sold piecemeal. The better ones are restored and put up for sale. There are several buildings on the property—sheds, garages, and the mobile home where Steven Avery lives. The Avery family owns several hundred acres in the area, and the road that runs through it is called Avery Road.
Steven Avery had only recently gotten back into the family salvage business after a long absence. In 1985 Avery had been convicted of raping and beating a 36-year-old woman named Penny Beerntsen as she jogged along the shore of Lake Michigan in nearby Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Avery had maintained his innocence, but Beerntsen picked him out of a photo lineup and then a live lineup. On December 14, 1985, a jury found Avery guilty of attempted first-degree homicide, first-degree assault, and false imprisonment. Several witnesses testified that Avery had been at his parents' home in Green Bay at the time of the assault, but the jury was unconvinced. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
Avery fought for a new trial to prove his innocence based on DNA testing of the scrapings recovered from Beerntsen's fingernails after the assault. Initial tests indicated that Avery's DNA was not present in these scrapings. In 1996 Circuit Judge Fred Hazelwood denied Avery's request for a new trial, and a year later the Second District Court of Appeals upheld Judge Hazelwood's decision.
Avery's case was then taken up by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, whose stated mission is to correct mistakes made by the criminal justice system. Lawyers for the Innocence Project convinced Judge Hazelwood that advances in DNA testing justified revisiting the case. Using 13 hairs recovered from Ms. Beerntsen after the rape, a state crime lab found that the DNA taken from these hairs did not match samples taken from Steven Avery. The DNA they found did match a man named Gregory Allen who was serving a 60-years sentence on a rape conviction in Brown County, Wisconsin. Allen had lived in the same area as Avery at the time of Beerntsen's attack. Based on this new evidence, Judge Hazelwood, on Sept 10, 2003, ordered that Avery be released from prison.
Avery had spent 18 years behind bars. Shortly after his release, he filed a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County for wrongful conviction.
Stephen Avery's case had been a well-publicized cause celebre in Wisconsin, and it's likely that Teresa Halbach had heard something about it in the news. If she had, she probably accepted the court's decision and believed that Steven Avery was indeed innocent because she apparently had no reservations about going alone to his salvage yard on Halloween Day, 2005. She'd been there many times and had dealt with him before. What she probably didn't know was Steven Avery's history with the law prior to his wrongful conviction.