Sophie Sergie cold case murder trial ends and goes to jury

A woman smiling at the camera
Obtained by prior permission of the Alaska Court System, this photo of Sophie Sergie was taken by her friend, Joann Sundown, on April 24, 1993. (Screenshot)

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details from Sophie Sergie’s murder trial that may be disturbing to some readers.

Lawyers in the Sophie Sergie murder trial stepped the jury through evidence and testimony in four hours of closing remarks on Monday.

Steven Downs, 47, is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault in the 1993 slaying of 20-year-old Sergie in a University of Alaska Fairbanks dorm.

On Monday, Special Prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein wanted the jury to link the two charges together, telling them the person who committed the rape also committed the murder.

She reminded them of how investigators found semen in the victim.

“Not in her underwear, not on her thighs. Just her vagina,” she said. “Because dead women don’t stand up.”

The defense claimed Downs was with his girlfriend Kate Deschweinetz Lee, at the time of the murder, in her room with other students, drinking and watching movies. But Gruenstein reminded jurors that Lee remembered a particular incident at that party.

“In fact what she said was, he was in and out of her room, that he wasn’t there the whole night, particularly in the very early hours of April 26th. She knew that he wasn’t there because that was when Bill Wilson tried to kiss her. And she knew for sure, Mr. Downs wasn’t in the room when that happened,” Gruenstein said.

The prosecution centered on DNA evidence. Gruenstein reminded the jury that the DNA profile from the semen was a match for Steven Downs, and that all of the alternative suspects raised by the defense were ruled out by their DNA not being on the victim or at the crime scene.

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Special Prosecutor, Jenna Gruenstein, at podium, looks across the courtroom at a photo taken of Sophie Sergie hours before she died. This image is used for this story with prior permission from Fairbanks Superior Court.

Downs’s defense attorney James Howaniec says semen found in the victim could be from consensual sex. He reminded the jury of testimony from Dr. Norman Thompson, a forensic pathologist, who testified on Jan. 26 about Sergie’s autopsy.

“It would not be surprising to find semen in a dead person who had sex even days before.”

Howaniec said Sergie’s friend Shirley Aklekok testified about she and Sergie having dinner together Saturday evening, and Joann Sundown testified about Sergie visiting her at Wickersham Hall down the hill later on.

“We do not know what Sophie did Saturday night. We don’t know if she went to a party. We don’t know who she hung out with. We do know she had an eclectic group of friends, some of them up on the third floor where Steven Downs lived,” Howaniec said.

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Defense attorney, James Howaniec of Maine, gestures to the jury during closing arguments in the trial. This image is used for this story with prior permission from Fairbanks Superior Court.

The defense focused on problems with the investigation.

Howaniec said James McCann, the lead Alaska State Trooper investigator in 1993, wrote in his notebook about other investigators, housing and medical staff who were called, and custodial staff who discovered the body.

“The crime scene had been corrupted. Some 19 people including students and possibly even the media had been to the bathtub scene before Jim and his team arrived,” he said.

He reminded jurors that troopers and UAF police were frustrated by not having enough people to investigate.

“There were 777 students in the three-dorm complex, but they only got to interview a small fraction of them,” he said.

The defense asked the jury to question the DNA evidence. Howaniec criticized the chain of custody of samples from the autopsy and crime scene.

“How confident are you in these DNA results? Did the state make their case on the DNA? You feel confident about these samples that were collected back in 1993?” he said.

Howaniec said the state never connected Downs with the murder weapon, saying none of the guns Downs ever had was connected to shooting Sergie.

“Some of them like Nick, who became lifelong friends, paint a picture of a happy, well-adjusted kid from Maine. Nick testified that he could never in a million years fathom that Steve could have done something like this,” he said.

Jury deliberations began Monday afternoon.

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