Steven Downs appears in the 8th District Court in Lewiston in 2019 with his lawyer, James Howaniec. His trial in the 1993 murder of an Alaskan woman concluded with a conviction in 2022. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — An Auburn man convicted and sentenced this year for the sexual assault and murder of an Alaska native woman roughly three decades ago was recently appointed a public defender to represent his efforts in seeking a new trial.

Stephen Harris Downs, 48, was moved from the county jail in Fairbanks to the Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla, Alaska, where he has begun serving his 75-year sentence.

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

He was sentenced in September for the 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 filed notice in October that he would appeal his conviction and sentence.


In that notice, 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.


Additionally, Downs claimed his 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 the trial to a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which created “severely compromised circumstances,” according to the notice.

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

In November, a judge granted the trial attorneys for Downs permission to withdraw from the case and scheduled a hearing to determine whether Downs was financially eligible for a court-appointed public defender.

In December, the court assigned a public defender to represent Downs’ appeal of his conviction and sentence.

Downs had been a freshman at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1993, 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.

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