Forensics, Firearms and Fingerprints; more witness testimony in the Jury Trial of Steven Downs

Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 7:25 PM AKST
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Several witnesses took the stand Tuesday, February 1, 2022, during the Jury Trial of Steven Downs.

Downs is on trial for the murder and rape of Sophie Sergie in a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory room bathroom on April 26, 1993.

Jessica Foster took the stand early Tuesday morning.

Foster works as the Major Property and Crime Supervisor for the Alaska State Crime Laboratory. She testified in regard to her part of reviewing reports made by Cheryl Duda and other colleges who previously worked on the Sergie case. She noted, in regard to what the standard operating procedure was at the time evidence was initially tested in 1993 and 1996, it would be common for a second analyst to rereview slides to come to a concise conclusion. She also mentioned this was because DNA testing was going “online” at that point in time, especially when going over cold cases, this was a way to further find evidence.

“A DNA profile, when no sperm is reported wouldn’t be unheard of,” said Foster “That’s part of the reason why we don’t do the slides anymore. Because we know you can still get a profile when no sperm are observed because of the small amount that was sampled initially.”

Lead Defense Attorney James Howaniec questioned Foster if Duda’s work, the work of others from the Alaska Crime Lab, and the results from the Sorenson report had any conclusions about the sample swabbed on Sergie’s right breast. The Sorenson report was made in a lab outside of the Alaska Crime Lab.

“It’s so low-level and insufficient for comparison,” said Foster. Howaniec questioned her as to whether there was any information that indicated any male source of DNA found.

During her testimony, she stated that one of the samples collected from Sergie’s right breast had evidence of one or more male traces of DNA present.

“Again, I don’t know if it said two males, but definitely more than one indicated I can’t speak for their “protocols and their interpretation but yes that is what her report said,” said Foster.

“That’s correct it could have been two or more males correct? More than one means two right?” asked Howaniec.

“No more than one means more than one. More than two would mean,” added Foster.

“Fair enough,” said Howaniec. “More than two,” Foster interjected. “At least two?” he asked again. “potentially?” he recanted. “At least potentially two,” she explained.

This became a statement that needed extra clarification, and Judge Thomas Temple had replayed her statement to the prosecutors and the defense to identify whether there could be more than two males in the DNA mix that an outside agency had recovered.

When it came to weapons that were identified in the case, the State brought forward Lindey Minnick, who worked as a cold case investigator in 2009.

Minnick interviewed Downs’ former girlfriend Kate DeSchweinitz-Lee on March 31, 2009. Downs and Lee started their relationship in the Spring of 1993, shortly before Sergie was murdered.

Prosecutor Chris Darnall asked Minnick about the 2009 interview. During that time DeSchweinitz-Lee did tell officers she remembered Downs and his former roommate Nicholas Daizer was in and out of a party in her room and recalls them leaving the room and going up and down to the third and fourth floor the night of Sergie’s murder. DeSchweinitz-Lee also stated that everyone in her room had been smoking and drinking and “carousing” before going to bed but they did not leave the building that night.

Attorney Hawanic asked Minnick to read a transcript of the 2009 interview.

“There is a reference to whether he had a gun or not,” he said, “Did she indicate to you if he had a gun?”

“She said according to the transcript, Steve was into weapons but he didn’t have a gun,” Minnick read.

Next to testify was Sergeant Scott Bryant of the Maine State Police Department. Sergeant Bryant assisted the Alaska State Troopers with evidence collection.

Inside Downs two-story Auburn home, Maine State Police found three firearms, one being a Harrington and Richardson .22 long rifle revolver also referred to as an H and R.

This same caliber gun has been questioned frequently during this trial.

“And where did this revolver come from?” asked Darnall.

“From the closet, on the left side of the closet when you walk through the door,” Bryant stated.

Later in the afternoon, Debra Gillis testified. She is an expert in Ballistics and Firearms with the Alaska State Crime Laboratory.

Gillis had conducted a report from the evidence she received. In 1993 Robert Shem was the lead ballistics analyst at the time, where he had reported on the bullet found on Sergie. Gillis quoted Shem saying the bullet was “unsuitable for firearm comparison.” At the time Shem did not have a firearm to compare the bullet to.

Gillis conducted her own report when the three firearms were seized from Downs’ home.

Based on her analysis she was not able to associate two of the three weapons found with the bullet. Gillis also stated she was not able to make an identifiable conclusion as to whether or not that was the revolver that was the gun used in the murder.

“You also reported that insufficient matching detail was found for a positive identification correct?” Asked Howaniec. “That means you cannot positively identify that gun as firing that bullet?”

“No I cannot,” said Gillis.

The last witness to take the stand was Jamie Nading. She works as a fingerprint expert analyst with the Alaska State Crime Lab. Nading analyzed five sets of fingerprints lifted from the crime scene. Two of those fingerprints were smudged and unusable not able to be compared.

She stated that from the partial prints that were useable, she was not able to make a match to Downs or Downs’ former roommate, Nicholas Daizer.

Prosecutors plan to wrap up witness testimony Wednesday and a possible statement from Downs that could be presented.

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