Decades-old Sophie Sergie murder case proceeds in Fairbanks despite pandemic

A courtroom
Screen grab from Alaska vs. Steven Downs Evidentiary Hearing on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. (Credit Alaska Court System)

Despite a hold on most court proceedings, the decades-old murder trial of Sophie Sergie is proceeding through preliminary steps in Fairbanks.

Judge Thomas Temple is hearing the case against Steven Downs who is accused in the the killing of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie in 1993.

Sergie was found dead in a dormitory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her case went cold for many years as suspect after a suspect was ruled out. However, in 2018, DNA from the crime scene was matched through a commercial database to a former student who had moved back to Maine.

Alaska State Troopers went to Maine to arrest him in February 2019. After a months-long trip to extradite him to Fairbanks, Stephen Downs has been waiting his day in court. His attorney, James Howaniec, said he is glad the evidentiary hearing has started this week.

“It’s been pushed off for a year, now. This was already going to be a tough case,” he said.

Howaniec and his law partners have filed 11 motions in the case.

“What we’ve been litigating the first two days and now will take up the third day is the motion to suppress evidence,” he said.

Downs was an 18-year-old freshman living in the same dormitory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where Sergie’s body was found on April 26 1993. She had been stabbed, raped and shot. Downs’ roommate at the time told Troopers Downs had owned a .22-caliber revolver that is believed to be the type of gun used to shoot Sergie.

During a search of Downs’ home in Auburn, Maine in 2019, investigators found a gun matching that description. Downs told them he had purchased that gun in 2016 from a private owner in Maine. Howaniec wants the DNA evidence and the gun removed from the case.

“It’s just simply not the gun that committed the crime, and we hope to have an opportunity to establish that,“ he said.

Judge Temple will hear motions Wednesday. Downs is charged with murder in the first degree and sexual assault in the first degree. If his case is not dismissed, he is scheduled for trial in Fairbanks on March 8.

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