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The Defense brings forward witnesses in the Jury Trial of Steven Downs

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Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 7:20 PM AKST|Updated: Feb. 4, 2022 at 2:05 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The state rested their case with witness testimony as the jury trial for Steven Downs nears the end.

The defense brought forth their witnesses to testify before the jurors. Steven Downs is on trial for the alleged murder and rape of Sophie Sergie in 1993.

Before the State Prosecutors rested, their last witness Randel Mcpherron took the stand once again to be cross-examined by the defense.

McPherron was asked questions regarding conflicting witness statements in his reports.

Lead Defense attorney James Howaniec asked McPherron about the gun that was seized from Downs Auburn, Maine home. The gun in question was a Harrington and Richardson .22 long rifle revolver Downs bought from a man named Sherman Varney in Maine in 2015.

Howaniec asked why McPherron never bothered to locate Mr. Varney and interview him about the purchase. McPherron claimed that was due to time constraints. Howaniec said it took him three minutes to find Varney.

Howaniec also questioned McPherron regarding a statement Shirley Akelkok made, seeing Downs in the hallway coming up the stairs before Sergie’s body was found. In her initial statements to the police, she made no mention of Downs, then years later after seeing a picture of Downs in the media, she recalled seeing him in the stairwell.

“Maybe it’s false, maybe it’s accurate. I don’t know, it is what she told me, " said Mcpherron

“Did you ask anyone else if they had seen Steven Downs with a white T-shirt?” asked Howaniec

“I would assume he had a white T-shirt, but whether he was wearing it that night, who would know and who would remember such a thing,” McPherron replied.

Howaniec then asked Mcpherron about a mistake he made in an affidavit presented to a judge to get a search warrant on Downs.

McPherron presented to the judge that another student in Bartlett Hall Brian Kowalski said both Downs and his former roommate Nick Daizer had handguns in their dorm room. Kowalski only noted Daizer had a gun.

“What made you think that Brian Kowalski said Steven Downs had a gun?” asked Howaniec.

“Well as you stated so many times this is, there is a lot of paperwork and a lot of facts to keep straight as I reviewed the report, I don’t know why it stuck in my head that he mentioned both. But you were right I was mistaken, It was only Daizer that had the gun” said McPherron.

“Important to get the facts right in a murder investigation,” Howaneic rebutted.

Nick Daizer did testify that his recollection was Downs had a “slab-sided” .22 rifle.

Marc Dupre, a forensic consultant, was the first witness to testify for the defense. Dupre stated he agreed with the previous forensic reports of the bullet found in Sergie and guns examined previously reported by analysts Robert Shem and Debra Gillis.

All agree the bullet was “heavily damaged and unsuitable” for firearm comparison, but that the bullet did come from a .22 caliber handgun.

He also noted the gun that was recovered from Downs’s Auburn home could or could not be the weapon used in the death. There was not enough conclusive evidence to prove that that gun killed Sergie. The bullet found in the autopsy could match hundreds of thousands of guns with that caliber.

Howaneic also noted that Mcpherron acknowledged in an affidavit that DNA alone is not enough alone to prove that Steven Downs committed the crime.

“In and of itself, semen in her body shows they had sexual intercourse. You cannot tell one way or another if it is consensual or non-consensual” said McPherron.

“Then you went on to say whether this intercourse was consensual can also not be confirmed through DNA analysis alone,” Howaneic added.

Judge Thomas Temple noted with the defense and prosecutors. “Ms. Sergie was found in this state, killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the head with a .22 caliber.” Juge Thomas Temple said. “The court must consider the evidence at this stage. In the light most favorable to the state, Mr. Downs owned .22′s. Including a .22, H-R revolver at the time at Ms. Sergie’s death, and a firearm was found in his home many years later. Again, considering the evidence as the court is required to do, in the light most favorable to the state, in regard to the identification, the state never had a witness point to Mr. Downs and say, that’s the guy. Ms. Sergie definitely can’t do it. She is not here, however the evidence in regard to identification was that a swab was taken of Mr. Downs’s cheek. That swab was taken to the lab and created a profile, and that profile was in fact consistent to the profile of semen found inside Ms. Sergie body. Court considering that evidence in the light most favorable to the state in the reasonable inferences that it must be drawn from it at this process for your motion, the court finds that satisfies the requirement of identification the court will deny the motion for judgment for acquittal.”

Kenneth Moto joined the court via Zoom after a short break.

Moto was a student during the 1992-1993 school year. Moto claims he lived on campus at one point but was not sure if he was living on campus during the semester during the time Sergie’s death occurred.

During that time, a few days before, his brother Robert Moto had died. He remembers partying but was unaware if he visited Bartlett Hall in the early morning hours of April 26, 1993. If he were there, he would be visiting his friend Scott Walker who lived in the dorms.

The reason Moto was asked to testify was that Melanie Sagoonick claimed she saw someone who looked like “Kenny” leaving the women’s bathroom on the second floor the night of the homicide. Sagoonick lived directly across from the bathroom on the second floor in the women’s dormitory at Bartlett Hall, the same floor Sergie’s body was found.

Moto claimed he did not know Sergie and did not see a picture of Sergie until newspapers showed a picture of her after the incident.

Moto was interviewed twice, once shortly after Sergie’s body was found. Then he told detectives he was in his room all night. In his second interview in 1996, Moto told detectives he was partying that night but does not recall going to the second floor or having any recollection of the murder other than rumors he had heard around campus. He also watched a cold case television program about the Sergie case. He told his sister he was a suspect.

Following Moto, the defense brought forward Michael Leake who goes by the nickname “Rueben.”

Leake had testified he also was a student during the 1992-1993 time as a first-year student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His roommate during the fall of 1993 was a man named Gregory Thorton. He stated during the time Thorton was his roommate, he recalls him having a .22 caliber revolver.

Leake testified in court Thorton was a “stalky” framed man, about 5 foot 9 inches tall with dark wavy or curly hair, olive complected with a close-cropped beard.

After Christmas vacation that year Thorton was no longer enrolled at the university. Thorton was no longer his roommate after the break, but he was still living on campus on the fifth floor. He recalls seeing him often in passing.

Leake said he saw Thorton a few days before the murder but does not remember seeing him the day everyone on campus was being interviewed following the death of Sergie.

Leake testified he did not see Thorton after the death occurred and that Thorton disappeared suspiciously, noting that he knew he was going home to Talkeetna and had a ride, but his ride was not scheduled to leave for a few days. Leake never saw Thorton again.

“When you found out, later on at some point that Ms. Sergie was shot in the head, it didn’t occur to you that maybe they would want to know that information about Gregory Thorton?” asked prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein.

“I mean it occurred to me but, there were a lot of years that I didn’t hear anything about the case or even think about it,” Leake replied.

Finally, Sherman Varney took the witness stand. He claims he sold an H and R .22 caliber revolver to Steven Downs on October 26, 2015, for around $250.

The transaction took place in front of his garage in Turner, Maine. He said Downs had shown him his license in accordance with Maine law, and that Downs was a “big guy,” and “awkward.” When they tested the firearm, he remembered the way he shot it was sideways and that stuck out in his head.

Phone records do correspond with Downs having called Varney twice for several minutes each time.

“You’re not aware of any reason why Mr. Downs would have called you on October 26, 2015, twice; once for a three-minute call, another time for a two-minute call, other than just part of this transaction for this gun that we are talking about correct?” asked Howaneic.

“No there is no other reason,” said Varney.

Judge Thomas Temple told the jurors closing arguments will start on Monday, February 7, 2022. Prosecutors and the defense will both have two hours to present their case.

The story was modified on February 4, 2022, for clarity.

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