The mistakes affect the search warrants that were used at Downs’ home to find a gun and the cheek swab to collect DNA for comparison. Naturally, the defense demands that all the evidence that was collected this way, will be excluded.
Let’s go over all the points the defense made on Februari 2, 2021.
Fruit from a poisonous tree
The search warrants were based on misleading information. Whether that was an innocent mistake or negligence, is up to the judge. But it comes down to probable cause.
The integrity of the search warrant marks the evidence found as either fruit from a poisonous tree or not e.g. was everything legally obtained.
Connect Downs to the crime scene and the victim
The authorities must tie Downs to the crime scene and to Sophie Sergie. The fact that he studied at the same university is not enough by a long shot. Now, do they have any ties? Yes, Downs’ semen was found in Sophie. His DNA was identified by using a genealogy database. However, there doesn’t seem to be any other physical evidence to tie Downs to the crime scene, not even fingerprints and plenty were found.
His defense attorney rightfully said that at the most we could point to a sexual relationship between Sergie and Downs but
- we do not actually know when that started as DNA cannot tell us when it was deposited and
- to prove rape, the state needs to overcome the misleading information, show the court additional hard evidence that ties Downs to the crime scene, and exclude the other suspects.
Alaska State Police Trooper and lead Detective Randel McPherron said some of the information contained in the sworn affidavits that were used to secure the search warrants, was erroneous.
Let’s check the most important mistakes.
- Several affidavits used by Alaska State Police to obtain the search warrants stated that a student who lived on the same floor as Downs during his freshman year at the Alaska State University (ASU) told police that Downs and his roommate had owned guns. In fact, the student actually said he remembered Downs’ roommate had guns, not Downs. “It was an error on my part,” McPherron said. “I just remembered it incorrectly. I thought he’d mentioned both men had guns in their room.” He said that he included that misinformation in his police report but that it was unintentional.
- In 2009, Downs’ then-girlfriend, Katherine deSchweinitz Lee, was interviewed by police. McPherron wrote in his search warrant affidavits that Lee told police that she didn’t know if Downs had a gun when he was at ASU but confirmed they dated. However, reading in court from a transcript from that interview, McPherron admitted that Lee had actually said: “Steve was into weapons, but he didn’t have a gun.” McPherron said that he had not read every transcript of every interview before preparing his affidavits and instead relied on an investigator’s summary of interviews with witnesses.
- Police found a .22-caliber revolver at Downs’ home on Feb. 14, 2019. That is the same night that he was questioned by police and had his cheeks swabbed for DNA. Downs told police that he had bought the gun within the past two or three years from a man in Turner. As far as I know, it has not been established that the gun found at Downs’ house is indeed the murder weapon. Also, no further information was given about the man in Turner.
Right to Counsel
Defense Attorney Howaniec hopes that Superior Court Judge Thomas I. Temple will suppress the statements made by Downs on Feb. 14, 2019. It appears that Downs asked for counsel which police interpreted as ‘engaging.’
In question is an interview with McPherron and an Alaska State Police sergeant. This was after the cheek swab. It took place at the Auburn Police Department. That interview was played in court last Monday. Downs asked if he can have a lawyer present for the DNA collection. If this is correct then the interview seems to have taken place before the swabbing.
Furthermore, Downs says that he should probably have someone speaking on his behalf, he wants to get a professional to speak for him. Justifiably, the defense pounced after they heard this.
“Why didn’t you just stop at that point?” Howaniec asked during cross-examination.
“He did not say I want a lawyer. I want to stop,” McPherron testified last Tuesday.
“He just kept engaging with us.”
Howaniec also questioned McPherron about the many other suspects. One of them is a man whose sister told police around 2013 that her brother had confessed. To whom he confessed, how many details were given, is not clear.
There also seems to be a witness who saw someone who looked like the man mentioned above leaving the dorm floor in question on the night of the murder. So, was that man a student at the time? Did he work at ASU? Are his fingerprints amongst those found in the bathroom? This man is said to have a history of violence towards women and had recently served time for homicide. No further information available as of yet.
At one point, police even thought a cop might have killed Sophie Sergie.
If we want to make a case stick we must eliminate other suspects. If we don’t, our case is not airtight.
Rape or Sex
There is no other physical evidence from the crime scene that can be linked to Downs. This includes the many fingerprints that were collected that night. Howaniec made the point that the DNA evidence could be used to prove that Downs had sex with Sergie. However, it cannot be used to prove that he raped or killed her. McPherron said he had borrowed that language from another investigator in the case.
Interesting note: “A reprimand appearing on Downs’ Maine nursing license references “unprofessional conduct” on multiple occasions. On one occasion in 2016, he reportedly made comments to a coworker that “made that individual uncomfortable.” Another coworker made a similar complaint a few months later, according to the warning consent agreement. He was required to take a training course called “Professional Boundaries in Nursing,” the warning claims.”
This does not prove Downs’ innocence in Sergie’s murder but it shows he may have a complicated background. It will be interesting to see what else pops up. Further hearings on motions filed by Downs’ defense attorney are planned for this week. To be continued.