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A cold case sees its day in court

News-Miner opinion: After nearly three decades, a Fairbanks jury finally is hearing evidence in the murder of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie, who was raped and killed in a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory bathroom.

Steven H. Downs, 47, of Auburn, Maine, is accused of the crime.

Sergie reportedly had traveled from her home in the tiny village of Pitkas Point in western Alaska to UAF, where she was staying with a friend when she was raped, stabbed and shot to death. Downs, then finishing up his first year at the university, reportedly was staying in the same dormitory where Sergie’s body was found in a bathtub by university custodial staff on April 25, 1993, about 12 hours after she was slain.

Downs was questioned at the time by police but denied involvement in Sergie’s death, instead blaming Fort Wainwright soldiers.

Years passed before Downs was arrested on Feb. 15, 2019, in Auburn, a small manufacturing city with a population of about 24,000 in Southcentral Maine, and extradited to Alaska. In 2018, his DNA was determined to match evidence found at the crime scene after Downs’ aunt voluntarily submitted her DNA to a genealogy website.

Cold case investigators used familial DNA testing to identify Downs. It is the same investigative tool that led to the April 2018 arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, now serving a life prison term for California’s Golden State Killer homicides and rapes. DeAngelo, a former cop in his early 70s when he was arrested and charged, murdered 13 people over the years and raped more than 50 women.

DeAngelo’s was the nation’s first cold case to be solved by finding and tracking members of his family through DNA on public genealogy sites, a methodology that has drawn fire from civil rights groups, the Los Angeles Times reported.

It is impressive and heartening that law enforcement officials in Alaska never gave up their hunt for Sergie’s killer. Leads were followed as years turned into decades and DNA collected at the murder scene was compared with samples in the FBI’s Combined DNA Identification System — a collection of databases with millions of DNA profiles — in the hope of finding a match, but with no luck.

Still, Alaska law enforcement’s investigation continued, culminating in Downs’ arrest. The officers involved are to be commended for their pursuit of justice for Sergie.

Downs’ trial is expected to last about six weeks with opening arguments set for this morning. The jury will have the final say, of course, but the case, no matter the outcome, likely now will be part of the growing debate over using familial DNA to identify and locate suspects.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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