Notes on the Sophie Sergie Case

Sophie Sergie, undated photograph (via Alaska State Troopers file photo)

Sophie Sergie, a 20-year old Yup’ik woman from Pitkas Point, Alaska, was murdered in April 1993 while a guest at Bartlett Hall, a dormitory on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. It was an especially brutal, gruesome homicide. Her body was found in the woman’s shower on the second floor – a female only floor – by a janitor. The sexual assault and homicide went unsolved for more than 25 years.

Then an Alaska cold case investigator, reacting to the success of genetic genealogy in the arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018, sent genetic material from the crime scene to  Parabon NanoLabs. Parabon found a match to a woman in Vermont. Traditional genealogy work revealed that woman had a nephew, Steven Downs, who had been a student at the University when when Sophie Sergie was murdered. Living on the floor above. Known to have had a .22 caliber pistol, the kind of weapon used to murder Sergie. Investigators got a search warrant for a DNA sample from Downs. It was a perfect match for the DNA found on Sergie’s body. After extradition from Maine to Alaska, Downs went on trial for First Degree Murder and First Degree Sexual Assault. On February 11, 2022, a jury in Fairbanks found Downs guilty on both counts.

It’s a long-delayed closure for Sophie’s family and the Alaska Native community. Sergie has been a part of an annual Gathering of Remembrance on the anniversary of her death each and every year since 1993, led first by the late Shirley Demientieff and more recently by Episcopal minister Shirley Lee. Sophie Sergie isn’t the only long-unsolved Alaska Native homicide, but she was certainly the most well known. Downs’ conviction is an important signal from the Alaska criminal justice system to Alaska’s Native people.

But the case raises troubling privacy concerns. Most folks who voluntarily have their DNA checked for their family history or genetic predisposition to disease or other reasons don’t knowingly consent to have their DNA data be part of a national database, used by law enforcement without warrant or notice. That’s different than the national database constructed with DNA from convicted criminals. It’s hard to imagine anything more private than your DNA. Yes, it’s a great law enforcement tool – Parabon NanoLabs alone claims to have solved nearly forty cold case crimes – and it has gained dozens of wrongfully convicted defendants their freedom. But where do you draw the line between privacy and law enforcement? Is getting a test for genealogy a permanent, irrevocable waiver of your right to control who gets to use that data? There are no statutes; there is no case law. State of Alaska v. Downs may establish some guidelines. You can be certain there will be an appeal.

Kathryn Miles, in Maine’s Down East magazine, has written a nice essay, slanted a bit more towards Scott Downs, who was a long-time Mainer, where she asks some good questions. What she doesn’t ask, because she probably doesn’t know, is that Alaska and Alaskans – even Mainers who haven’t lived in Alaska since 1996 – have a state constitutional right to privacy, which sets a higher expectation of privacy than that of folks who live in the Lower 48. It’s not absolute. And a person in the position of Steven Downs may not have standing to raise the issue: his privacy wasn’t arguably violated; it was his aunt’s privacy that was compromised. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

But WC notes that as early as 2010, law enforcement knew Downs had a .22 pistol and one or more knives, and that his alibi had problems. They could have sought a search warrant for Downs’ DNA at that point. So maybe the privacy issues are moot in this case.

But the fascinating legal issues shouldn’t distract anyone from the key point: Sophie Sergie’s killer has, finally, been caught and convicted.

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