Attorneys for Steven Downs, the Maine man convicted of killing 20-year-old Sophie Sergie in 1993, filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that misconduct by prosecutors compromised the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The motion, filed last week by lead defense attorney Jim Howaniec, presents grounds for an acquittal, or alternatively, a new trial in Fairbanks Superior Court.
“There are four grounds that we cited as to why we should have, at the very least, a new trial,” Howaniec said. “We think the motion pretty much speaks for itself.”
In the motion, the defense accused the state of engaging in misconduct, arguing that prosecutors improperly presented witnesses with the intent of misleading the jury during the trial, which included testimony from Downs’ college girlfriend Kate Lee.
“Ms. Lee testified that Steven owned a gun at the time of the murder in 1993,” the motion reads. “The state presented this and other misleading testimony from Ms. Lee, even though she had previously testified, under oath, that she was recanting such testimony.”
The motion further claims that certain privileged phone calls between Downs and his attorneys were illegally monitored by the state.
Less than 12 hours after engaging in a “highly confidential” discussion of trial strategy with Downs at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, Howaniec and defense attorney Jesse Archer received an “unusual email” from Assistant Attorney General Christopher Darnall. The email alerted the attorneys that the Alaska Department of Corrections records phone calls made by in-custody inmates.
“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,” the motion states. “This was a warning that had not been made by the State during the prior three years since Steven was arrested.”
Howaniec previously motioned for a judgment of acquittal after the state rested its case during week three of the trial. Judge Thomas Temple denied the motion.
Downs, 47, of Auburn, Maine, was convicted of sexual assault and murder in the death of Sergie, of Pitkas Point, who was found raped, stabbed and shot in a dormitory bathtub at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on April 26, 1993. Downs had been a student at the time of Sergie’s death and lived in the upper-campus dormitory where her body was discovered.
He was arrested in 2019 and extradited to Alaska after a family member submitted DNA to a genealogy website that reportedly matched DNA from the crime scene.
A DNA sample provided by Downs confirmed that his genetic profile matched the semen found inside Sergie. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and has maintained his innocence throughout the case.
Under Alaska state law, the defense must file a motion for a new trial within five days of the jury’s verdict, which was read on Feb. 10, Howaniec explained.
Downs faces a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison. He will be held without bail until his sentencing hearing in September.