Steven Downs sentenced to 75 years for death of Sophie Sergie

Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 6:11 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:25 AM AKDT
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Nearly 30 years after the death of 20-year-old Sophie Sergie, the man found guilty of her murder and sexual assault faced a sentencing trial on Monday.

Sergie, a young woman from Pitka’s Point, Alaska had been visiting friends at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) campus. In the early morning hours of April 25, 1993 Sergie left her friend’s dorm room to have a cigarette in the women’s dormitory bathroom. Her body was found the next day. Despite her murder taking place in a crowded co-ed dormitory during finals week, officials never found her killer - who evaded police for nearly 25 years.

For almost three decades, Sergie’s death remained a cold case.

This changed in 2018 when DNA technology and genetic research were used on a sample of DNA taken from Sergie’s body in 1993. This was the same technology used to find the so-called “Golden State Killer” Joseph DeAngelo in April of 2018.

Sergie’s DNA was placed in a national database. A family member of Steven Downs submitted their DNA to a genealogy website, and finally police had a suspect - one whose DNA profile matched what was found on her body.

Steven Downs attended UAF from 1992 to 1996. He was on campus during the time of Sophie’s death, living in Bartlett Hall one floor above where the body was found.

Sergie had been stabbed, sexually assaulted, and had been shot in the back of the head at close range.

For many years police worked to track down Sergie’s killer - and in 2019, after the DNA match, investigators visited Downs at his home in Auburn, Maine.

He was arrested in February of 2019 after his DNA definitively matched the DNA in the database. He was then extradited from Maine to Alaska to await trial.

Steven Downs’s Jury trial took place in February of 2022. On February 10, 2022, the jury found Steven Downs guilty of the murder and sexual assault of Sergie.

Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Thomas Temple presided over the trial and the sentencing.

Because of the circumstances surrounding Sergie’s death, the State Prosecutors asked the court to impose 99 years of incarceration with 20 years suspended for the Murder in the 1st Degree, and eight years for sexual assault in the first-Degree. That would keep Downs in prison for 87 consecutive years.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Jenna Gruenstein argued on the charges presented to add aggregators by analogy when it came to the sentence. She explained the aggravators would not impose a sentence above the presumptive term. The State also requested the court to issue the worst offender finding though Downs had no prior convictions.

“In this case the court has very wide discretion in Murder in the 1st Degree sentence to 20 to 99 years to impose,” Gruenstein explained. “[That’s] whether they are aggravators by analogy or just factors that the court considers and places weight on in determining the appropriate sentence.

“This was a murder that was combined with a sexual assault... likely one that was committed with a gun and or knife point against a woman who Mr. Downs overpowered in every way,” Gruenstein continued, “His height, his weight, his strife, the fact that he possessed multiple weapons.”

She added that arrest, conviction, and sentencing are all important pieces of closure for Sophie’s family, and the community and she felt there should be an acknowledgment of that.

Judge Temple clarified this particular case follows the sentencing laws that were in place in 1993 when the crime occurred. He noted during the trial the jury found no aggravators and dismissed the State’s request.

The judge stated what is unusual about this case is the amount of time between when the incident occurred and now. “Whereas in a typical homicide where someone is apprehended right after the crime [and] convicted, there is a question of, ‘Is this person likely to harm someone again?’ And it is an unknown factor,” Temple said. “We consider what we know, the person’s history, the facts of the case, and numerous other things..... Mr. Downs has remained crime-free for nearly three decades.”

Downs Defense Attorney James Howaneic opted for a lower sentence, noting his client’s health and age of Downs when the crime was committed.

“I think the fact that this happened when he was 18 years old, your Honor, is a significant factor,” Howaniec said. “Studies show that young people, especially young men prior to age 25, their frontal lobes are not fully developed. Their judgment capacity and maturity levels lag behind and that is important. His age at the time of the events is a major factor that we are asking the court to consider.”

He also reiterated to Judge Temple that over the nearly 30 years since the crime occurred, Downs has been a model citizen and has not committed any other crimes, not even a speeding ticket.

Judge Temple gave Downs an opportunity to speak, which he declined, stating that the Defense would speak for him.

“I’ll be honest Judge, you know the way we approach this is really more on a practical plane,” his attorney continued. “Steve is 48 years old now, he is over 400 pounds, he is now starting... his body is starting to catch up with him. He has very high blood pressure. I think that his life expectancy is not going to be 103 years old here - and frankly anything in excess of a 20-year sentence, that is going to be bringing him to near the end of his life.”

After a short recess, Judge Thomas returned with the sentence analysis and sentence.

“The sentence is flat. 67 Murder One, 8 for sexual assault, totaling consecutive for a combined composite sentence of 75 years of incarceration,” Temple said.

Downs will receive credit for the time he has already served in Maine and Alaska - totaling, as of September 27th, 1,320 actual days, or a bit over three and one-half years.

Under Alaska State Law, Downs could be eligible for discretionary probation after one-third of this sentence, or 25 years for good behavior. Downs was also ordered to pay restitution to the family of Sophie Sergie and register as a sex offender.

Judge Temple noted there will be no sentence the court could oppose that might even approach adequate restoration to Sergie’s surviving family and loved ones.

“Ms. Sergie’s life was taken from her by Mr. Downs,” Temple said. “It was a senseless act. Mr. Downs gave zero regard to her autonomy as a person, to the value of her life, and she is forever gone because of your choice, callous choice. But in addition to taking Sophie from the world, you robbed her family of their ability to love her, to experience life with her, to continue time on earth with her.”

The judge added, “Murder and sexual assault are unjustifiable. Period. And there is nothing, including the passage of nearly three decades, that reduces the magnitude of that conduct.”

In a press release from the State of Alaska Department of Law, Gruenstein was quoted as saying, “For both Chris (Chris Darnell, Assistant Attorney General) and myself, it was a real honor to work on this case, given how long it had gone unsolved, how long the community - Fairbanks, UAF, Sophie’s family - had suffered knowing that somebody had apparently gotten away with this murder and rape. I think that being able to provide some closure to the community is one of the best things that came out of this. It’s another example of how helpful genetic genealogy can be. This is the first case that has gone to court in Alaska using this technology.”

Downs’s attorneys stated he has maintained his innocence, and they plan to pursue appeals over the case.

The Trial of Steven Downes: What you need to know.

The jury finds Steven Harris Downes guilty of the murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie.

This news article was updated with additional information on September 27, 2022 at 8:32 p.m.