LEWISTON — A judge in Alaska set a trial date in September for an Auburn man charged with killing and sexually assaulting a former student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1993.

Steven Downs appears in Androscoggin County Superior Court in Auburn in March 2019 for an extradition hearing. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

A local attorney representing Steven H. Downs, 45, said Fairbanks, Alaska, Superior Court Judge Thomas I. Temple has blocked out the month of September for Downs’ trial.

Lead defense attorney James Howaniec said the judge also scheduled the week of April 13 to hear several motions the defense has filed in the case, including a motion to dismiss the charges against his client and motions to suppress evidence against him.

Downs was charged in February 2019 in the slaying of Sophie Sergie, a 20-year-old resident of Pitkas Point, Alaska. She had been staying with a friend in a residence dormitory on the school campus where Downs lived.

She had last been seen late in the evening of April 25, 1993, when she’d left a friend’s dorm room to smoke a cigarette. Custodial staff found her body in a woman’s bathroom the next afternoon.

Investigators said Sergie had been shot in the back of the head with a .22-caliber gun, stabbed in both eyes, struck with a blunt instrument, gagged with a ligature and shocked with a stun gun.

Downs had lived one floor above the floor where her body was found. He told investigators he had been with his girlfriend around the time of Sergie’s slaying.

The case had gone cold for decades until DNA evidence from a commercial genealogical database helped police link Downs to the crime through an aunt. Prosecutors said DNA from semen found on and inside Sergie’s body matches that of Downs.

At a Tuesday speedy-trial hearing in Fairbanks, Howaniec represented Downs by phone from his Lewiston home while his co-counsel, a Fairbanks attorney, appeared in the courtroom.

Howaniec said Judge Temple had called the hearing to ensure Downs’ rights under state law hadn’t been violated. Temple ruled following the hearing that Downs’ rights hadn’t been violated.

It took the U.S. Marshal Service nearly three months to transport Downs from Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn to Anchorage, where he was arraigned on Aug. 6, 2019. Downs had waived extradition on May 20. Prosecutors  argued the clock had started ticking on Aug. 6 for Downs’ 120-day right to trial; Howaniec said it started when his client was taken into federal custody 83 days earlier.

Downs’ journey took him to New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma and Nevada, where a viral outbreak further held up his transport to Alaska. Air travel escort from Maine to Alaska normally executed by Alaska state troopers had been ruled out because of the length of the flight and seating restrictions, Howaniec said.

Although the judge agreed the time it took to transport Downs was much longer than usual, he determined it wasn’t the fault of prosecutors, who had done their due diligence and, therefore, ruled there had been no violation.

Once Downs arrived in Fairbanks, Howaniec filed a motion to continue, which stopped the speedy-trial clock.

Defense attorneys had written in motions that prosecutors have provided “no motive” for Downs’ alleged murder of Sergie. They characterized him as having been “a healthy, good looking, popular, happy, intelligent, Dean’s list student from a solid family in Maine.”

Howaniec said he and local co-counsel Jesse James Ian Archer expect to be in the Fairbanks courtroom in April to argue their motions on behalf of Downs.

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