Judge rejects new trial for Auburn man convicted of Alaska murder 29 years ago

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Mar. 26—LEWISTON — The judge who presided over the sexual assault and murder trial of an Auburn man this year in Alaska on Friday rejected an appeal for a new trial or a judgment of acquittal, citing a lack of evidence.

A jury convicted Steven H. Downs, 47, on Feb. 10 on both counts involving the brutal death of Sophie Sergie, 20, of Pitkas Point, Alaska. Her body was found in a women's bathroom of a dormitory at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks on April 26, 1993.

The Alaska Native woman 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.

Downs was a student there at the time, his room one floor above where her body was found.

The cold case was revived in 2018 when the DNA of his aunt was a random hit to semen found inside Sergie's body. He was convicted Feb. 10.

In their motion, Downs' attorneys cited several grounds for acquittal or new trial in Fairbanks Superior Court, alleging, among other improprieties, 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.

In his Friday ruling, Temple addressed each of the defense claims, including the belief certain phone calls between Downs and his attorneys before the trial while Downs was in jail 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, Lewiston attorney James 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 alerted 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 Howaniec 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."

Defense also wrote in its motion that an "unusually phrased statement" uttered during a confidential phone call between Downs and his attorneys was repeated at trial by a prosecutor during closing arguments.

Temple wrote that prosecutors in the case denied those claims and that no evidence was presented by the defense to back up that assertion and the defense hadn't raised the issue before or during trial.

The defense motion alleges the lead investigator in the case engaged in perjured and otherwise untruthful testimony at trial, including his statement that he hadn't heard a witness recant her earlier testimony about Downs owning a gun.

Temple responded that the defense presented no evidence to support that claim.

Howaniec said Friday of the judge's ruling: "We are not surprised by the court's ruling. We continue to believe strongly in Steven's innocence and will appeal the verdicts at the state and federal levels."