A Fairbanks judge ruled Tuesday that the state did not violate Steven Downs’ right to a speedy trial even though it took 82 days to extradite him to Alaska.
Downs, 45, of Auburn, Maine, is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault for the April 26, 1993, rape and killing of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie.
Sergie’s body was found in a bloody bathtub at Bartlett Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed multiple times and shot in the back of the head.
Despite the efforts of Alaska State Trooper investigators, Sergie’s murder went unsolved for years and was eventually relegated to the cold case file. Investigators finally got a break after they were able to match DNA left at the scene with that of Downs’ aunt, who had voluntarily submitted her DNA to a genealogical website. Further investigation showed Downs had been a student at UAF from 1992-96, and was living in Bartlett Hall at the time of Sergie’s death.
Downs was arrested near his home in Maine on Feb. 15, 2019, and remanded to the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. Downs’ attorney, Jim Howaniec, initially fought to keep his client in Maine but waived extradition on May 20. Downs was transferred to Strafford County Jail in Dover, New Hampshire, in early June and did not arrive in Alaska until Aug. 6.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Jenna Gruenstein, an attorney with the state’s Office of Special Prosecution, called two witnesses to explain why Downs’ extradition took so long.
Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Charles Inderrieden testified that two Alaska Department of Public Safety officers would normally extradite a prisoner via commercial airline, but safety concerns prompted the decision to ask U.S. Marshals to transport Downs on the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, a private, federal airline otherwise known as “Con Air.”
“Obviously (the officers) cannot sleep on an aircraft, or even be groggy for that matter, if they’re armed on an aircraft with a prisoner present. One of the other concerns, was, and obviously this is nothing personal, but the defendant’s size, your honor,” Inderrieden said. “The command’s decision out of Anchorage was that he’d potentially be taking up two seats. The feds require us to have officers between the prisoner, who is against the window, and the aisle, and so you’d only have one officer between the prisoner and the aisle and the other officer would have to sit either behind them or in the seat directly across the aisle.”
Deputy U.S. Marshal John Lajeunesse testified that JPATS only flies to Alaska every five or six weeks, and the first two flights to the West Coast were grounded because of mechanical issues with the planes. Downs was transferred from Brooklyn, New York, to Oklahoma and then to Nevada in hopes of getting him on a flight to Seattle in mid-July and then on to Anchorage by July 25. That transfer was postponed at the last minute because the federal facility in Nevada was medically quarantined for several weeks.
Downs finally arrived in Anchorage on Aug. 6 and was arraigned in Fairbanks court on Aug. 14.
Alaska statute requires that a defendant in a criminal case be tried within 120 days of being charged. That time can be extended at the request of the defense or the prosecution and if the judge agrees to it.
Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple said Tuesday that he found that the delay in Downs’ extradition was due to an unfortunate set of circumstances and not for a “nefarious purpose.”
“I would be reaching a much different decision had the evidence been Mr. Downs was simply slowly transported across the country because that’s what they chose to do. That’s not the situation we have here,” Temple said.
Temple scheduled a week of hearings starting April 13 to discuss various motions filed by the defense. Downs’ trial is tentatively scheduled to start Sept. 7.
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.