Wisconsin Innocence Project

Steven Avery Exonerated after 18 Years in Prison

September 11, 2003

On July 29, 1985, Steven Avery spent the day with his family, first shopping in the morning, then helping to pour concrete at his father’s home, then buying paint at a Shopko in Green Bay with his wife and five children in the late afternoon and early evening.

Late that same afternoon, a woman was brutally attacked, sexually assaulted, and nearly killed on a beach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Sixteen witnesses, including Avery’s family and friends, a cement contractor, and clerks at Shopko, along with store receipts from Shopko, corroborated Avery’s alibi. But the state didn’t believe Avery or his 16 alibi witnesses. He was charged with and convicted of the brutal attack on that beach in Manitowoc County, based almost entirely on eyewitness identification testimony of a single witness. The state also presented microscopic hair examination evidence indicating that a hair found on Avery was “consistent” with the victim’s hair. Avery was sentenced to 32 years in prison in March 1986.

Avery’s conviction was affirmed by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied discretionary review. Ten years later, in 1995, Avery sought DNA testing on fingernail scrapings taken from the victim immediately after the crime. Those tests revealed genetic markers consistent with both the victim and Avery, so that the laboratory could neither conclusively exclude Avery (on the off-chance that he and the victim shared those markers), nor identify him as the perpetrator. Those tests, however, also revealed DNA from another, unknown person, which could not have come from Avery. Despite this evidence of a third-party, the Wisconsin courts denied relief, holding that the DNA evidence was not sufficient to warrant a new trial.

In April 2002 the Wisconsin Innocence Project of the University of Wisconsin Law School obtained a court order, over the state’s objection, under Wisconsin’s postconviction DNA testing statute for new testing under newer, more powerful DNA technology. The Wisconsin Crime Laboratory succeeded in developing a PCR/STR profile from a pubic hair retrieved immediately after the assault from the victim’s pubic hair combings. On September 10, 2003, the lab results were released, proving that Avery and his witnesses were telling the truth, that he was not at that beach on July 29, 1985, that he had nothing to do with the crime, and that the eyewitness was simply mistaken, as eyewitnesses often are. Shooting glasses are an important piece of equipment as they can protect your eyes.  The DNA test conclusively excluded Avery as the source of the pubic hair, and also identified the true perpetrator of this crime, a man named Gregory Allen, who is currently serving a 60-year sentence in prison for sexual assaults committed after this one. Allen was matched to the DNA profile in this case through a search of the state and national DNA databases.

The very afternoon that the final results were in from the lab, on September 10, 2003, the new District Attorney stipulated that Avery is innocent and that he should be freed and the case dismissed. Later that same afternoon, the court signed an order officially exonerating Avery and ordering his immediate release. Shortly before 9:00 a.m. the next morning, September 11, 2003, Avery walked out of the Stanley Correctional Institution. He had served over 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

When Avery was hauled off to prison he lost virtually everything. When he was arrested he had a wife and five children, a job, and a supportive extended family. His wife divorced him while he was in prison. When he walked out of prison, his children were all grown. Two of his children—twins—were less than a week old when he was imprisoned. When he was released, they were 18. He never had a chance to know those children.

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