LEWISTON — The lead defense attorney for an Auburn man facing murder and sexual assault charges in a 27-year-old cold case is seeking sanctions against prosecutors who reportedly dumped more than 5,000 pages of evidence on the defense a week after pretrial hearings in the case had been scheduled to get underway.

Steven Downs, left, appears in 8th District Court in Lewiston last year with his attorney, James Howaniec, before he was extradited to Alaska to stand trial for a 1993 murder. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

Local lawyer James Howaniec wrote in a motion filed recently in Fairbanks, Alaska, Superior Court that hearings had been slated to start April 13 on the defense’s several pretrial motions based on nearly 3,000 pages of discovery shared last year by prosecutors. One of those motions had been seeking to dismiss the murder and sexual assault grand jury indictment against 45-year-old Steven Downs.

Those April hearings were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A week later, though, Howaniec began receiving emails from prosecutors that contained more than 5,000 pages of additional discovery.

“This is outrageous,” he wrote in his recent motion in which he argued for more time to file additional motions based on the newly shared evidence. He also is seeking to have the court issue sanctions against the prosecutors — by excluding the new discovery — for turning over nearly twice the amount of evidence than initially shared and handing it over almost a year later.

“This case has been investigated by the state of Alaska for over 27 years,” he wrote. “We have stumbled upon highly exculpatory emails and records in the new discovery in which members of the Alaska crime lab themselves apparently raised questions about their own evidence and testing.”

He said neither he nor any member of Downs’ defense team had been alerted to the fact that any additional discovery was forthcoming after they received last year’s discovery.

“The extremely late 5,000 pages of new discovery some 15 months after the defendant’s arrest makes this case exponentially more complicated. We are now required to basically start all over again,” he wrote in his motion. “A cursory review of the exculpatory information we have found so far leads us to conclude that we will certainly, at the very least, need to supplement our motion to dismiss the indictment and motion in limine seeking to exclude all DNA evidence.”

Steven Downs’ defense attorney received more than 5,000 pages of evidence from prosecutors more than a year after he was charged with the 1993 murder and sexual assault of an Alaska woman. Contributed by James Howaniec

The additional work now required by the defense and the experts who were hired to analyze the initial evidence shared by prosecutors will now add “enormous expense to the defendant,” who had worked as a registered nurse, Howaniec wrote in his motion.

He wrote that the defense had requested in August 2019 all discovery held by the state of Alaska in this case. In a later request, the defense specifically asked for missing DNA records, a request that went unanswered for months, Howaniec wrote in his recent motion.

“It was very clear that there had to be evidence missing, as the discovery had made reference to law enforcement investigator notebooks, log records, reports, inaccurate DNA reports and other materials, none of which was given to the defense,” Howaniec wrote. “There were virtually no notes provided from the original investigators.”

Downs was charged in February 2019 with killing and sexually assaulting a former student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in 1993.

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

She was 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.

The case went cold for decades until 2018, when DNA evidence from a commercial genealogical database helped police link Downs to the crime through an aunt.

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