Crime & Courts

Maine man appeals Alaska murder and sex assault convictions and sentences

LEWISTON, Maine -- A Maine man convicted in the murder and sexual assault of an Alaska Native woman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks nearly 30 years ago is appealing his convictions and sentence.

Steven H. Downs, 48, of Auburn, filed notice of his appeal Monday with the Alaska Court of Appeals in Anchorage.

Downs was convicted at trial by a jury in Fairbanks of the 1993 dormitory murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point.

He was sentenced last month to a total of 75 years in prison for two crimes: 67 years for murder and eight years for sexual assault.

Downs will be eligible for discretionary parole after 25 years.

Through his lead trial attorney, James Howaniec of Lewiston, Downs cited the points of his appeals.

He claimed the trial court judge erred in his decision to deny Downs’ motion to suppress statements and evidence from trial.


Downs also claimed the judge should have disallowed at trial so-called third-party DNA evidence (from Downs’ aunt.)

The judge mistakenly denied Downs’ motion to dismiss the grand jury indictment charging him with murder and sexual assault, according to his notice of appeal.

The trial judge should have excluded from trial evidence of firearms, knives and other weapons, Downs’ claimed.

Statements made by Downs to law enforcement officers were allowed by the judge at trial in violation of his Miranda warning rights, Downs claimed.

The trial judge mistakenly disallowed Downs to present certain evidence of alternative suspects at trial, according to the appeals notice.

Downs’ state and federal constitutional due process rights were violated by the trial judge who denied a joint motion by the defense and prosecutors to continue to trial to a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which created “severely compromised circumstances,” Downs claimed.

In addition, the judge made “erroneous rulings” regarding issues relating to evidence at Downs’ sentencing, he claimed.

Downs had been a freshman at UAF, living in a dorm where the victim was found. His room was one floor above the crime scene, the bathtub area of a women’s bathroom.

The case had gone cold until 2018 when it was revived after Downs’ aunt had submitted her DNA to a company that matched it in a random hit to semen found inside Sergie at the crime scene.

Over three weeks of testimony, more than 40 witnesses appeared at trial in person or by videoconference on a TV monitor in the courtroom during the trial, which got underway in mid-January.

The jury returned its verdicts on both charges after four days of deliberations.

In Monday’s court filings, Howaniec, Lewiston lawyer Jesse James Ian Archer and Alaska lawyer Frank Spaulding filed a motion with the court to withdraw as Downs’ attorneys.

The trio had represented Downs during pre-trial hearings, at trial and sentencing.

Downs is “indigent” and lacks the funds to retain legal counsel for his appeals, according to the court filing.

He is seeking appointment of Alaska Public Defender Agency to represent him in his appeals.