A prosecutor told the jury in closing arguments Monday that Steven H. Downs of Auburn, Maine, sexually assaulted an Alaska Native woman nearly 30 years ago and murdered her to keep her from telling police.

Steven H. Downs appears in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn in March 2019 for an extradition hearing. He is on trial in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the 1993 murder of an Alaska woman. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

Chief Assistant Attorney General Jenna Gruenstein told the jury of three men and nine women in Fairbanks Superior Court that Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska, deserved justice after her April 26, 1993, slaying in the bathtub area of the women’s bathroom on the second floor of Bartlett Hall of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

Downs had been a freshman at that time, living on the third floor of that dormitory.

“During the course of this trial, you have heard evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt who killed and raped Sophie Sergie,” Gruenstein said. “You heard evidence beyond a reasonable doubt it was that man, Steven Downs,” she said, pointing to Downs in the courtroom.

Downs’ lead defense attorney, James Howaniec told the jury during his closing argument that the investigation into Sergie’s murder had been “botched” and that the prosecution had been “lazy” because it didn’t pursue leads beyond only incriminating evidence that pointed to Downs.

Howaniec cited examples of evidence presented during the three weeks of testimony by more than 40 witnesses that repeatedly raised reasonable doubt about his client’s guilt, including three alternative suspects and DNA found on the body that belonged to a man other than Downs.


Gruenstein focused primarily on the undisputed fact that Downs’ semen was found in Sergie’s vagina at the time of her death. No one else’s DNA, other than that of Downs and the victim, was found and identified at the crime scene, Gruenstein said.

In an interview with investigators, Downs had repeatedly said there must have been a mistake by investigators or the laboratory because he had never heard of Sergie nor met her.

Downs, 47, didn’t testify during the trial.

Howaniec floated the possibility that Downs and Sergie might have had a consensual sexual encounter sometime during the weekend before her murder early on a Monday.

But Gruenstein told the jury that evidence found at the crime scene suggests otherwise, noting no semen had been found in her underwear, which had been pulled down along with her sweatpants, when she was found, her shirt pulled up over her breasts. Had she engaged in intercourse before going to the bathroom on the night of April 25, 1993 to smoke a cigarette, there would have been evidence of that on her underwear, Gruenstein said.

After she was sexually assaulted and killed, Sergie never stood up again or pulled her clothes back on, Gruenstein said.


Sergie was discovered curled in the fetal position in a bathtub. Investigators said she was 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 death was the bullet fired into her head.

Gruenstein called the case circumstantial, but said there was plenty of additional evidence against Downs beside the DNA found inside the victim.

Downs’ roommate and best friend at the time, Nicholas Dazer, told police more than 15 years after the crime that Downs owned a .22-caliber revolver during the time of the murder, the same caliber gun consistent with the bullet recovered in Sergie, a ballistics expert testified at the trial, Gruenstein reminded the jury.

Downs girlfriend at the time of the murder said she had gone target shooting with him during that semester during which he had an old .22-caliber revolver that she believed he had borrowed because she’d never seen him with it before or since, Gruenstein said.

Howaniec told jurors there was enough reasonable doubt in the case “to drive a train through.”


He said the only eyewitness who saw a man exiting the shower and bath area of the women’s bathroom around the time of the murder was described as being about half-a-foot shorter than Downs, with darker hair than Downs had and had a darker complexion than Downs.

“That, by itself, is reasonable doubt,” Howaniec said.

He said prosecutors had formed a theory of the case when Downs’ DNA was discovered in Sergie and tailored the evidence they pursued and presented at trial to fit that theory.

“The state is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” he said.

Downs was allowed to present evidence at trial implicating three alternative suspects.

Investigators said Sergie had been visiting a friend at that dorm when her body was discovered. That friend lived on the second floor of Bartlett Hall and had suggested Sergie smoke in the bathtub area of the bathroom. That was the last time she saw her.


Gruenstein said Sergie didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs and hadn’t been partying that weekend.

Howaniec said not all of Sergie’s movements that weekend had been accounted for.

Downs’ was arrested at his home in Auburn in February 2019 after his DNA was matched in 2018 to semen found in Sergie through a random hit after Downs’ aunt submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

Jurors began deliberations late Monday afternoon.

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