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After final witness, closing arguments in the jury trial for Steven Downs set to begin

Fairbanks Superior Court, Judge Thomas Temple presiding.
Fairbanks Superior Court, Judge Thomas Temple presiding.(Alaska Court System)
Published: Feb. 5, 2022 at 4:27 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The last witness was called to the stand Friday in the final days before jurors deliberate in the jury trial for Steven Harris Downs vs. the State of Alaska.

After the defense listened to testimony from their final witness, Dr. William Watson, the state had an opportunity to cross-examine Dr. Watson regarding his findings made from another report that was deemed inconclusive and unsuitable for DNA results.

Watson had reviewed bench notes on a swab that was taken from the right breast nipple of Sophie Sergie during an autopsy. The swab was sent to Sorenson Forensics Lab in Salt Lake City, Utah and prepared on August 21, 2012.

This report has become a back-and-forth conversation between several witnesses testifying to the results. The Sorenson report stated that “one or more” traces of DNA were found on the sample. One of the gender markers found came from male DNA.

Lead defense attorney James Howaniec asked, “You can’t exclude Mr. Downs, but when you look at the report in its totality and consider the highlighted sections, again, what is your opinion as to whether Mr. Downs was a source of the DNA collected from the right breast swab of the victim?”

“I would say he is excluded as a contributor to the DNA that is in the swab on the right breast,” Watson answered.

Howaniec replied, “And you reviewed the Sorenson forensics report. That’s just your opinion?”

“No that was their conclusion also,” said Watson.

Watson testified that by looking at the profile generated, he was able to determine that even though Downs was potentially excluded from the report, that does not exclude him from being a contributor. He noted that a low-level contributor could potentially “drop out” of the profile at a particular location. Watson said he would not exclude a person based on one location, and that the female profile found in the DNA was consistent with Sergie’s.

State prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein cross-examined Watson. She questioned how he was able to come to his conclusions based on DNA that was reported to be inconclusive.

“You said you did not have the underlying data for any of the reports,” Gruenstein said.

“If I had said for any reports then I was mistaken,” Watson answered, “because certainly, I had the electropherogram report from Mr. Downs’s profile and the data from Sorenson report.”

Gruenstein noted that there were 8,391 pages of information in the report given to Watson. She asked if he had reviewed any of the reports from the Alaska Crime Lab.

Howaniec objected, stating Watson testified directly that he did not review any of the Alaska Crime Lab reports and his testimony was limited to mitochondrial testing, sperm tails, and the analysis of the breast swab sample.

Judge Temple over-ruled Howaniec’s objection but noted that “both parties need to be clear in their questioning when a witness says he can look at it or doesn’t have it, he gets the opportunity to have a repeat of what happened with an earlier expert witness.”

The judge was referring to a cross-examination with Jennifer Foster who also was questioned on the Sorenson report. She testified that she was not qualified to speak on behalf of the Sorenson report, but she did review it. She was also questioned as to whether there was more than one male found in the DNA sample.

Gruenstein asked Watson to read the conclusion of the Sorenson report. “In the notes section, inconclusive DNA results indicate that possible lauric activity was observed below the laboratory analytic threshold, or that portions of the DNA appear at such low levels that no conclusions can be drawn as for the source,” read Watson.

“So essentially what they are saying is they could not, and would not do what you did is compare it to a known person,” said Gruenstein.

“That is what they had said,” he answered.

Gruenstein added, “Because the levels of known materials were so low that they were not scientifically valid to make a comparison.”

At the end of the re-direct, Watson still stood by his report. “Based on the assumption that Ms. Sergie’s profile, excuse me, DNA is in that mixture, and even just limited to that, I can say that there is no indication of a third contributor,” Watson testified. “Now I cannot exclude the possibility, which is why there are two assumptions being made when I made my comparison, one was that she was included in the mixture and that was a mixture of two people, and that circumstance Mr. Downs would be excluded from that profile.”

After a cross-examination defense rested. Steven Downs was given an opportunity to testify where he chose not to do so.

“Your attorney says that you have decided not to testify. Is this your voluntary decision, Sir?” asked Temple.

“Yes,” Downs replied.

Judge Temple questioned, “Have you discussed this decision with your attorney?”

“Yes,” Down affirmed.

“Has anyone promised you anything or threatened you in any way to convince you to make this decision?” asked Temple.

“No,” said Downs.

“Are you ill or under the influence of any alcohol, drugs, or medication today?” asked Temple.

Downs replied, “no.”

Finally, Judge Temple stated, “I find that Mr. Downs has made a knowing and voluntary decision not to testify at this trial.”

Because of time constraints, Judge Thomas Temple decided that closing arguments will proceed on Monday, February 7, 2022 starting with the state speaking first, and defense to follow. Because the state has the burden of proof, they get the last word.

Both sides are allotted two hours to give their arguments. Jurors then will be given instructions following the parties’ closing statements. Three out of the 15 jurors will be selected at random to be released from the case. The remaining 12 will decide whether Steven Downs is guilty or not guilty of charges for the alleged rape and murder of Sophie Sergie on April 26, 1993.

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