Defense files motion for new trial for Auburn man in Alaska cold case

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Feb. 19—LEWISTON — Attorneys for an Auburn man filed a motion this week seeking a new trial in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the 1993 sexual assault and murder of an Alaska Native woman for which he was convicted last week.

In their motion, they cite four grounds for an acquittal of Steven H. Downs, 47, or for a new trial in Fairbanks Superior Court, alleging misconduct on the part of prosecutors and the lead investigator in the case.

When the state rested its case against Downs at trial, the defense had motioned for an acquittal, which was denied by Judge Thomas Temple.

Under Alaska law, a defendant must file for renewal of an acquittal motion or for a new trial within five days of the jury's verdict, which was reached on Feb. 10.

In the motion, lead defense attorney James Howaniec of Lewiston and other attorneys hired by Downs, wrote that he had reason to believe certain phone calls between Downs and his attorneys had been illegally monitored by the state.

Within hours of engaging in a lengthy phone call with Downs, who was jailed at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, Howaniec and defense attorney Jesse James Ian Archer received an "unusual" email from Assistant Attorney General Christopher Darnall shortly before the start of the trial in January.

The confidential conversation among Downs and his attorneys "entailed a highly sensitive discussion of the facts of the case that included highly confidential discussion of trial strategy," according to the motion.

Darnall's email alerts Downs' attorneys to the fact that Alaska Department of Corrections "records phone calls made by in-custody inmates."

Quoting from Darnall's email in the motion he wrote: "I understand that members of DPS (Department of Public Safety) reviewed some of your client's phone calls and found nothing material or relevant — in other words, there was nothing of evidentiary value in the calls that DPS listened to, either inculpatory or exculpatory, and we do not intend to use any recordings that DOC possesses."

If DPS had discovered anything relevant or material, "we would have passed it along," the motion quotes Darnall's email.

The motion said: "This was a warning that had not been made by the state during the prior three years since Steven was arrested. During that time, Steven has had hundreds of telephone calls with his attorneys.

The timing of this odd email raised very serious concerns that phone calls between Mr. Downs and his attorneys were being illegally monitored by the state."

Archer asked prosecutors for more information about the jail phone records. "The responses have been inadequate," according to the motion. Archer then subpoenaed the jail for its records.

"That subpoena has been ignored completely by the jail," the motion said.

"The defense's alarms became even more urgent during closing arguments (at trial), when the prosecutor recited a highly unusually phrased statement that the defendant had made during the aforementioned telephone conference. The statement could be pure coincidence, but this seems highly unlikely to the defense."

The motion alleges prosecutors improperly presented witnesses at trial with the intent of misleading the jury, specifically citing three witnesses, including Downs' then-girlfriend Katherine deSchweinetz Lee, who prosecutors said had testified Downs owned a gun at the time of the murder, despite her later statement recanting that testimony.

In the motion, defense attorneys allege that prosecutors engaged in improper allegations during opening statements and closing arguments, including calling Downs "a liar" for statements he made to police, saying he had not met or known the victim and for telling the jury Downs had a "propensity" for owning a certain type of gun consistent with the one believed to have killed the victim.

The motion alleges the lead investigator in the case engaged in perjured and otherwise untruthful testimony at trial, including having his statement that he hadn't heard Lee recant her earlier testimony about Downs owning a gun. That investigator also had failed to pursue the chain of ownership of a gun seized at Downs's home in 2019 by police that prosecutors had initially claimed was the murder weapon, according to the motion.