Discrepancies in forensic reports explained in Jury Trial of Steven Downs

Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 8:35 AM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -The Jury Trial of Steven Downs, the man accused of the alleged murder and rape of Sophie Sergie in a dormitory bathroom at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993, resumed on Monday, January 31, 2022. In court, testimony relied heavily on the cross-examination of forensic scientists from the Alaska State Crime Lab.

Both the Prosecution and Defense spent several hours hearing testimony from Cheryl Duda, a Forensic Scientist with the Alaska State Crime Lab on her interpretation of several reports that were re-reviewed with possible discrepancies.

There were questions about how the reports were handled. From a report that was made in 1993 then re-reviewed in 1999, and the mislabeling of samples to whether they were taken from a swab or a gauze.

“The labeling issue is when you raised [sic] was there any concern based on your review in your work in this case that the wrong item had been tested?” asked Prosecutor for the State of Alaska, Jenna Gruenstein.

Duda replied, “No, my concern was never that there were sample switches. My concern was not the conclusions were incorrect. My only concern was that it could potentially be confusing in court if an item was sometimes described as a swab and sometimes described as gauze. But I never had doubts about the scientific process that was used or the conclusions that were reached based on that profile.”

The reason why the reports seemed contentious in nature was the evidence found from the samples was used to find DNA that would eventually link Steven Downs to the cold case.

She told jurors it is not uncommon for analysts to re-review reports or even test samples again, especially with new advances and developments in DNA profiling over the years. She also noted she had no reason to doubt the reports of her colleagues.

“In that case, where you conducted the first analysis, somebody else directed you that maybe you’re wrong, you redo it and you correct yourself, would you consider that to be a discrepancy between you and that second reviewing analyst?” asked Gruenstein.

“ I think that maybe a discrepancy in the results, not a discrepancy between the analyst in the reviewer. A thing that I think of as a discrepancy between the analyst and the reviewer would be an instance where one person says, “I think you can make a conclusion on this”, and the other one says, “No, I don’t think you can,” That’s a discrepancy between analysts. If my reviewer says the analysis you did was wrong, you’re going to need to go redo it, and I redo, and I in fact, go back and redo it and get a different result. That’s not a discrepancy between analysts. That’s a discrepancy in data,” she explained.

Duda stated in the report she analyzed three items, a stain from Sergie’s sweatpants, a swab from her right breast, and another swab from the backside of the right thigh.

From the swab, she was able to deduce the genetic profile that was consistent with the sperm fraction profile from the same individual as the genetic profile obtained from the vaginal extract in the sample labeled 1017.

“For the epithelial fraction, there was DNA from more than one individual observed, the genetic profile for the major component was consistent with being from the same individual as the sperm fraction of the vaginal sample in item 1017, and no DNA that was inconsistent with Sophie Sergie was detected in the minor component of that sample,” said Duda. She also explained to jurors that epithelial refers to cells that serve as a lining. “Lining like that found in the vaginal cavity, it could also be lining like skin cells,” she explained.

Gruenstein asked Duda the difference between a major component and a minor component, and what are the ways scientists are able to separate out possible contributors to a mixture of DNA. She replied they look at the size of peaks on the electropherogram.

“In other words, we can group together the peaks that are very tall, and say that that’s a major contributor because those tall peaks mean that more DNA from that person is present, then a minor component would be the collection of the small peaks. If all those small peaks are consistent with being from a single person, we might be able to make comparisons to both the major contributor and the minor contributor of a mixed profile,” said Duda.

From the hairs that she analyzed in 2003, Duta explained she attempted but was not able to obtain a profile. “You have testified that the testing has got a lot more sophisticated since then correct?” asked Jesse Archer, Defense Attorney for Steven Downs, and asked if she had re-tested pubic hairs that were collected. “The remaining material would not have the kind of DNA on it for the testing we do,” she stated. “Now as far back as 2002, you could have sent those pubic hairs to a lab that can do mitochondrial DNA testing correct?” asked Archer. She replied, “Yes, hairs do have mitochondrial DNA in them and so those hairs could have been, and probably still could be analyzed, by mitochondrial DNA.”

He asked to the best of her knowledge if she knows if they ever have been tested. “I would have to look at the chain of custody, but to my knowledge, they are still at the laboratory,” she replied.

The trial will continue this week with more cross-examination and testimony to follow. Due to COVID protocol, there are no media present in the courtroom and all the trial is streamed live. Our station was granted authorization to use video and audio recordings of the trial.

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