Steven Downs, left, appears in the 8th District Court in Lewiston in 2019 with lawyer James Howaniec. Downs was facing extradition to Alaska to stand trial for a 1993 murder. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

An Alaska judge postponed court hearings Wednesday for an Auburn man charged in a 1993 rape and murder case, nearly two weeks after a cyberattack forced the Alaska court system off the internet.

“The current posture of that is that we are not connected to the internet, intentionally, and this may exist for another few days to a couple of weeks,” Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple said Wednesday in a teleconference call from his courtroom.

“I don’t know what the result is,” he said, but noted, “we will not be able to have a Zoom hearing this week” as planned.

Aside from a week’s worth of hearings in February in which the attorneys appeared in the courtroom, more recent pretrial hearings in the case have relied on videoconference, with only the judge appearing from the courtroom. Witnesses and attorneys have appeared via Zoom while defendant Steven Downs, 46, of Auburn has listened in and spoken by phone from jail.

Temple had hoped to wrap up hearings on nearly a dozen pretrial motions in the case.

Downs is charged with sexual assault and murder in the April 25, 1993, slaying of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska.


He was arrested in Auburn in February 2019 and extradited to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he is being held at the local jail pending trial, which is expected to happen in January 2022.

Lewiston defense lawyer James Howaniec said Wednesday by a phone call into the Fairbanks courtroom with the judge and prosecutors that he was withdrawing three motions he had filed in the case.

He said he was dropping a motion alleging prosecutors violated discovery rules by releasing beyond the deadline and in dribs and drabs the roughly 8,000 pages of evidence and about 100 audio files in the case after Downs’ indictment and arrest.

“The court is generally aware of our concerns about discovery,” Howaniec told the judge. “We do believe we have all of the discovery. It may have taken a year and a half to get it but we got it. We still have some concerns about the way it got to us.”

Howaniec also told Judge Temple he was withdrawing a motion to exclude all DNA evidence from trial by challenging the collection and testing of the DNA gathered at the crime scene 28 years ago.

Because much of the defense’s concerns around those issues were already examined during an earlier hearing to dismiss the indictment against Downs, Howaniec said he believed that issues around possible flaws in the collection and analysis of DNA could best be assessed by a jury.


The third motion Howaniec announced Wednesday the defense was withdrawing was aimed at determining the timing in which Downs’ DNA came into contact with the victim, whether that happened before she was killed or at the time she was killed. Howaniec said that although the timing of the deposit of Downs’ DNA would be an issue in the case, he and his defense team realized a jury could best decide that question based on evidence presented at trial.

Sperm found inside the victim’s body was matched to Downs after his aunt had allowed her DNA profile that was gleaned from a genealogical website to be entered into a database that included DNA gathered from the crime scene in this case.

Arguments on other motions in which evidence was presented in court earlier this year are expected to be heard through videoconference next month, postponed from Wednesday and Thursday.

One of those motions is whether the judge will allow the defense to introduce alternative suspects at trial.

Another motion planned for argument in June is whether the affidavit filed by police to obtain a search warrant for Downs’ home and DNA from his saliva was faulty because it contained misinformation.

Howaniec also will be arguing to dismiss the indictment charging his client because, among other problems, the state’s witness recanted her grand jury testimony at a hearing earlier this year.


Police said Sophie Sergie had been seen alive last when she left a friend’s dorm room at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to smoke a cigarette. Custodial staff found her body in a woman’s bathroom the next afternoon.

That bathroom was on the second floor of the dorm in which Downs lived on the third floor.

Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in the cheek and eye, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.

The medical examiner concluded the cause of Sergie’s death was the bullet fired into her head.

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