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Steven Downs jury trial begins with opening statements

Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 8:48 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The jury trial for Steven Downs began Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022 in a Fairbanks courtroom. The Office of Special Prosecutions with the State of Alaska introduced Sophie Sergie, and their version of her whereabouts and events leading up to the night she was killed.

Opening arguments presented by Jenna Gruenstien, with the State of Alaska, told jurors who Sophie was, describing her as academically driven and a young woman with goals.

Gruenstien went on to say Sergie took time off from college to save up money to get orthodontic work done, and that she had to put her education aside to save up some money.

That’s what brought Sergie to Fairbanks the weekend of April 25, 1993. She was scheduled to have a routine orthodontic checkup, and when in town she would stay with her friend and former roommate Shirley Akelkok.

Prosecutors showed jurors a collection of evidence including a picture that was taken the night of her murder. In that picture, she was wearing navy blue pants with an emblem and a blue bomber jacket. Other than the jacket, it was the same clothes she was found in when her body was found the following Monday.

When the picture was taken on Sunday, prosecutors say there was a “mixed vibe” on campus. There were students who were finished with school and hanging around campus looking to party, while others were busy studying for finals.

They explained that Sophie and her friends were not the partying types, although Sergie was known to have smoked cigarettes. In the early hours of Monday morning, Sergie went to smoke a cigarette and never returned to her friend’s room.

Sergie’s body was discovered by janitorial staff late Monday afternoon in a bathtub on the second floor of Bartlett Hall dormitory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

Prosecutors showed a diagram of the bathroom and recalled names of those who entered the bathroom during the time of her disappearance. Prosecutors say one witness went to the bathroom and took a shower much later than usual, around 1:20 a.m. She stated the tub room light was on and the door was closed, which she said was very unusual. On the other side of the wall, there was a shower area, where another student told investigators she heard low muffled noises. She also described what sounded like something large being bumped against metal. She was concerned but decided not to check to see what the noise was.

After the janitorial staff found the body, the Alaska State Troopers were called in to document the scene. Sergie’s body was taken to Anchorage for a forensic examination. An autopsy revealed there were no drugs or alcohol in her system. Fluid samples were taken from Sergie’s body where the DNA found would sit in a national genetic database for 19 years.

State prosecutors also introduced how Downs was linked to the Sergie case, including the fact he was a freshman at UAF. The Downs DNA was matched to that which was also found on Sergie, and prosecutors say the revolver seized from Down’s Auburn, Maine home matched the weapon use the night Sergie was killed.

Defense Attorney James Hawanic spoke on behalf of Downs, addressing the prosecutors reiterating to jurors that this was a case solely based on unreasonable doubt.

They claimed the crime scene had additional DNA and fingerprints that did not match that of Downs. Hawanic said there were also pubic hairs found that did not match his client. He went on to say the gun found in Down’s Auburn home was purchased in Maine and they have the seller to corroborate the purchase.

Hawanic told jurors the state’s case is extremely thin, and matching Downs with DNA from 1993 comes with its own complications. He stated limited DNA is all prosecutors have. They don’t have a gun. Hawanic described trying to match Downs with this crime is like trying to fit square pegs in round holes to fit in their case.

He recalled how over the next couple of weeks the state police stopped investigating this case and the initial investigation was over a before a week school ended. He explained how the interview process was minimal at the time.

“It can be clear and convincing that Steven Downs committed this crime. That’s not enough. That’s not enough if you have a doubt. And we are asking you that you put the emotions of this case aside and you analyze the evidence objectively and if you do, you will return the verdicts of not guilty on both counts. Thank you, your honor,” said Hawanic.

After a short break, the first witness took the stand, Shirley Akelkok.

The state went first in asking Akelkok about her relationship with Sergie and her recollection of the nights leading to her murder.

Alelkok said that she was with her boyfriend Noah, and they had pizza in her room before they both went back to his room for the night. They asked her many questions regarding what she was wearing to whom Sophie was hanging out with at the time.

“When you were all at UAF, I think that it is not uncommon when 18-year-olds get out of the house for the first time, they party, they drink a lot. Was that Sophie? Was she?” asked Gruenstien.

“No. Not at all, as a matter of fact, she was the complete opposite. I think she really felt the weight on her shoulders as far as her family and everything that she needed to do. You know at UAF there is basically two groups, you are either a heavy partier or you weren’t, and she wasn’t,” said Akelkok.

Later the defense asked Akelkok similar questions and referenced past interviews she had with investigators over the last three decades. They reviewed past interviews and used transcriptions to try to see if Shirley’s story matched with testimonies that she told investigators in the past.

Akelkok stated during her time at the university she did not know Downs but remembers making eye contact with him in passing. Later when she was shown a picture of Downs as a student, she said that was the face she saw in the stairwell.

“The only reason I knew it was him was there were pictures of him when he was a young man. And I remember I saw these people in the stairwell and that’s how I remember.” she said.

Hawanic asked if at the time if she knew it was Downs, and she said she did not. He later asked her about a jacket that she described as a black trench coat, and also questioned her about wet clothes that were later found under her bed that she did not recall being there before.

The last thing the defense asked Akelkok before the end of the session was, if she told investigators at the time the guy she saw in the stairwell was Steven Downs.

She replied, “I couldn’t have told them that because I didn’t know it was him.”

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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