LEWISTON — It has been more than a month since Steven Downs waived extradition to Alaska to face murder and rape charges in a 26-year-old case, but he has only traveled as far as Brooklyn, New York, according to his lawyer, who characterized the situation as “almost Kafkaesque.”

Steven Downs, left, appears in the 8th District Court in Lewiston in April with lawyer James Howaniec. Downs was facing extradition to Alaska to stand trial for a 1993 murder. Sun Journal file photo

The 44-year-old Auburn man signed off May 16 to not contest his return to Alaska, where he was a college student in Fairbanks in 1993.

Sophie Sergie, 20, a former student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was visiting a friend there in April 1993 when her body was found in a bathroom on the second floor of a dormitory. She had been shot in the back of the head and stabbed in both eyes, one while she was alive and the other after she was dead, according to court records.

The case went cold for decades until DNA evidence from genealogical database Ancestry.com helped police link Downs to the crime through an aunt.

On June 3, Downs left Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn only to get as far as the Strafford County Jail in Dover, New Hampshire. From there, federal marshals eventually deposited him by van at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a federal holding facility. Downs now is awaiting further instruction, his lawyer, James Howaniec, said Tuesday.

“I guess it’s a pretty rough place,” Howaniec said, adding prisoners there are often ignored and lawyers are not able to communicate with their clients.


“In fact, we didn’t know where he was for about a week and a half,” Howaniec said. He had talked every day to his client when Downs was in New Hampshire, “but then, all of a sudden, he stopped calling me. And we just didn’t know where he was.”

Howaniec and co-counsel Jesse James Ian Archer had taken delivery of roughly 3,000 pages of documents from Alaska prosecutors that the two lawyers had to review with their client, Howaniec said.

But they could not reach Downs and had no idea where he was. No one at the Alaska Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case against Downs, knew where he was, either.

They had expected his arrival in their state “long before now,” Howaniec said.

Downs managed to send a text message to Howaniec through the wife of a fellow prisoner at the Brooklyn facility, letting him know where he was.

Howaniec finally heard from Downs by phone Monday, after more than a week of silence. His client told him he expected the next stop on his journey would be Oklahoma, still far from his final destination.


“He tells me he’s doing well. He’s in reasonably good spirits,” Howaniec said, adding Downs is “very anxious to get to Alaska.”

“He’s very adamant about his innocence in this matter,” Howaniec said. “He feels there’s been some very serious error in this investigation, and he’s just very anxious to proceed with the pretrial and trial process in Alaska.”

Prosecutors in Alaska are “likewise anxious” to get on with the process, he said.

Howaniec said he is unable to get his client the resources he needs. And because all phone calls with Downs are monitored, Howaniec said, he cannot speak confidentially with his client about the case without going through a complex procedure.

“There’s just a complete arrogance in the federal system towards the rights of prisoners and people accused of crimes,” he said. “There’s nothing surprising about what we’re seeing here.”

Howaniec said his frustration is growing.


“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “And I don’t think even the Alaska authorities have, frankly.”

Howaniec said he has no idea when his client might be arriving in the state where he has been charged. Howaniec also said he plans to be at Downs’ side when he arrives at a Fairbanks court, but has no idea when that might be, noting Downs’ constitutional right to a “speedy trial.”

“It shouldn’t happen in any case, but it seems to me especially egregious in a case of such significant potential consequences involving a murder charge,” he said.

“It just seems incomprehensible to me that a person charged with murder is being held hundreds and thousands of miles away from his legal representation in two different states without any meaningful ability to communicate about thousands of pages of law enforcement investigative materials that have accumulated over the past 26 years. It seems like an almost Kafkaesque situation.”

Howaniec’s reference was to Franz Kafka, a Czech-born German writer best known for the bizarre, oppressive or nightmarish qualities of his fiction.

The discovery shared by Alaska prosecutors includes a lot of forensic investigation, such as fingerprint, blood and DNA evidence, along with dozens of interviews with people who were in the Fairbanks area at the time of the rape and murder.

“We’re trying to evaluate the quality of the investigation back in 1993,” Howaniec said. “It seems bizarre to us that a young woman could have been shot in the head, violently attacked on the second floor of a dormitory with dozens of students nearby and nobody saw or heard anything relating to the crime. That seems very unusual to us.”

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