Crime & Courts

Jury finds Maine man guilty in Fairbanks cold-case murder

A Fairbanks jury on Thursday found Steven Downs guilty of the murder and rape of a 20-year-old woman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993 when he was a student there.

Sophie Sergie was found in a dormitory bathtub by a janitor. She had been stabbed multiple times, sexually assaulted and shot in the back of the head, authorities said.

For nearly three decades, police made no arrests in the case, but Downs, now 47, was tied to the crime and arrested in 2019 after his DNA was matched to the scene through genetic genealogy.

Downs was not identified as a suspect until authorities discovered a DNA match with his aunt, who had uploaded a sample to a commercial online genealogy database. Investigators then obtained a sample of Downs’ DNA when they executed a search warrant at his home in Auburn, Maine. The sample matched DNA taken from the crime scene.

[How genealogists helped track down the Maine man accused of killing Sophie Sergie nearly 26 years ago]

Downs was a freshman at the university in 1993 and lived in the dorm where Sergie was found dead. Sergie, who was from Pitkas Point, was visiting a friend at the university and had gone to smoke a cigarette before she was killed.

Downs’ trial began in early January, and jurors began deliberations Monday afternoon.

During the trial, jurors heard from people who were at the dorm on the night of the crime, forensic experts and law enforcement.

Downs did not testify, but jurors heard a recording of his conversation with investigators in which he denied knowing Sergie and keeping a gun in his dorm room. In the recordings, he told police he was with his then-girlfriend the night that Sergie died. She testified during the trial that he had left the room several times that evening.

Downs’ friends and then-roommate testified that he owned guns and a large hunting knife, including a .22-caliber pistol. An expert testified that Sergie died from a .22-caliber bullet.

During closing statements Monday, prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein encouraged jurors to remember that Downs’ DNA was found at the scene and that the alternative suspects raised by the defense had been ruled out because their own DNA did not match any found at the scene.

Downs’ attorney, James Howaniec, urged jurors on Monday to account for flaws in the investigation, including errors made in investigator reports.

The jury deliberated for days before reaching a verdict Thursday morning. Downs was found guilty on both charges, first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault.

“We are grateful that Steven Downs was held accountable for his actions after almost 30 years and hope that Sophie’s family and the Fairbanks community as a whole are able to obtain some closure in light of this verdict,” chief assistant attorney general Gruenstein said in a prepared statement.

Howaniec said by phone Thursday that Downs and his team of defense lawyers were disappointed by the verdict and that there would likely be an appeal.

“It was a very emotional and difficult case,” he said. “Obviously, we continue to believe in the innocence of our client, but we also respect the process and we respect the jury’s verdict.”

Howaniec said questions about genetic genealogy will likely be raised on appeal. The science is relatively new, and Downs is the first man in Alaska to stand trial for a charge that resulted from genetic genealogy. The science is controversial when used by law enforcement because it could infringe on constitutional rights, Howaniec said.

“A lot of people across the country are watching this case and wondering whether it’s going to go up to the Supreme Court, and this could be the opportunity to litigate that,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

Downs is being held without bail at the Fairbanks Correctional Center and is scheduled to be sentenced in September. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 129 years.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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