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Cold Case Trial of Steven Downs a Test for Genetic Genealogy Testing

The Maine man who has been accused of the rape and murder of native Alaskan, Sophie Sergie, 25 years ago in a UA Fairbanks dormitory, was only discovered through a new type of DNA analysis called genetic genealogy testing. Defense lawyers acting for Steven Downs have challenged the DNA evidence and its constitutionality.

Downs was ultimately arrested after a DNA sample taken from the 20 year old was compared to a sample of DNA from Downs’ aunt, coincidentally stored as part of a genealogy survey. The case had been closed for almost 25 years since Alaska State Troopers had hit a brick wall in relation to solving who had committed the brutal attack on the girl.

Small samples of body hair, pubic hair, semen, fingerprints, a boot print and blood were recovered from the crime scene back in 1993 but none of these seemed to lead anywhere at the time. It was the DNA sample that eventually was used to provide a lead across the country to Maine. The Cold Case Unit of the Alaska State Troopers gave the DNA sample to a lab in Virginia that uses material to which it has access to do research into genealogies. Downs’ aunt had previously volunteered her own DNA to the same lab in an unrelated genealogy exercise and it was the close match with her DNA that eventually led to Downs’ arrest in Maine by Maine State Police who were coordinating with Alaskan authorities.

There was other evidence that no doubt will be used by prosecutors against Downs who entered a not guilty plea at his trial at a court appearance in Fairbanks on August 19th 2019. This evidence, much of which seems to be circumstantial, included the fact that Downs, 18 at the time, was staying in the same UAF dormitory where Sophie Sergie was found dead. Downs is recorded as being a UAF student between 1991 and 1994. A roommate of Downs had also reported that Downs had a .22 caliber pistol with him in his room at the time of the murder, the same type of weapon that was used to kill Sergie.

Genetic genealogy testing was used as evidence in another murder, this time in California. Joseph James DeAngelo has been implicated by the method as the killer in the “Golden State Killer’ Murders. De Angelo’s trial has not yet reached a verdict.

When Downs was first extradited back to Alaska his lawyers claimed that the original crime scene had been seriously compromised as at last nine people had been into the bathroom where Sergie was found dead before police arrived. They also questioned whether evidence obtained by genetic genealogy testing could be used as a search could violate a defendant’s constitutional rights. They have maintained that the only physical evidence that prosecutors had to link the murder with Downs was ‘a few spermatozoa’ and that the original 1993 investigation was ‘badly botched.’

Downs remains in jail in Fairbanks after bail was set at $1 million.

If you have been arrested for a crime, it is important to remember that you have the right to be defended. You cannot be convicted unless prosecutors can convince a jury that the evidence against you proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you were guilty.

In Anchorage, contact dedicated criminal defense attorney, Dattan Scott Dattan. You can reach him at his office at 907-276-8008.

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