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Stories related to the investigation and trial

Sophie Sergie autopsy presented to jury in cold-case murder trial

Sophie Sergie photo by Joann Sundown.jpg
Joann Sundown
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Used by permission
Obtained by prior permission of the Alaska Court System, this photo of Sophie Sergie was taken by her friend, Joann Sundown on April 24, 1993.

Some of the stories from the Sophie Sergie murder trial are potentially traumatizing to listeners.
Former state medical examiner notes details in 1993 report

A report on the autopsy of Sophie Sergie was the focus of testimony yesterday as the trail of her accused killer continued in Fairbanks. The 20-year-old Sergie of Pitka’s Point, was found dead in a women’s bathroom at a University of Alaska Fairbanks dormitory in 1993. Steven Downs, who was an 18-year old student living in the dorm at the time, is charged with Sergie’s rape and murder.

The facts of the autopsy and the medical examiner’s report are not in dispute, but the defense had protested the report being brought into evidence and 28 autopsy photos being shown to the jury. Attorney Jesse Archer of Maine, who is representing Steven Downs, said late Tuesday afternoon the report wouldn’t tell the jury anything new about the terrible tragedy, but the defense also would like to question the original author, Dr. Michael Propst, the Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy on Sophie Sergie’s body in 1993. Special Prosecutor Jenna Gruenstein responded that this is not the first case in which the state has tried to find Popst to get him to testify.

"I will note that Dr. Propst - we attempted to contact him. I thought maybe he had passed away. He may be alive. The reality of it is, is that we have not been able to talk to him."

The judge reviewed the photos and ruled the prosecution can show a smaller selection, which they did on Wednesday.

Alaska law allows other medical examiners to review autopsy reports and testify to them, so instead of Dr. Propst, the jury heard an analysis by Dr. Norman Howard Thompson, a forensic pathologist formerly with the state Medical Examiner’s office.

“She was a relatively small young woman at five feet in height, and weighed 111 pounds. She was tested and there was no evidence of alcohol in her blood, negative for barbiturates, opiates, amphetamines, cocaine, and cannabinoids, or marijuana derivatives," Thompson said.

The jury saw photos of the back of the victim’s head, where she was shot. Thompson told Prosecutor Chris Darnall that the wound was fatal.

“She died from brain injuries due to a gunshot wound to the head,” Thompson said.

“And based on your training and experience, how long would it take for someone to die after they've been shot in the head like Sophie was?” Darnall asked.

“I would expect death in this case, also considering the amount of bleeding at the scene, is consistent really with what's on the death certificate, I would expect death to occur within minutes,” Thompson said.

What is in dispute is if Sergie had consensual sex, or was forced. No injury of her vaginal area was noted in the autopsy, neither externally nor internally. Thompson told Prosecutor Chris Darnall, that doesn’t rule out sexual assault.

Dr. Norman Thompson
screenshot
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Alaska Court System
Dr. Norman Thompson, far right at witness desk, gives the jury an analysis of the original 1993 autopsy report of Sophie Sergie. This image was screenshot with prior permission of the Fairbanks Superior Court for use in this story.

“In cases where sexual assault is alleged, maybe only 20% of people will have genital injuries,” Thompson said.

“So to be clear, is that about one in five instances where sexual assault is alleged actually has evidence of physical injuries?” asked Darnall.

“Yeah. There's scholarly documents that use those numbers," replied Thompson. "And I think in my practice, that's similar to my experience as well.”

Defense attorney Jesse Archer asked Thompson if injuries and semen could be found after consensual sex. He said yes, but in a case where forced sex was suspected, injuries would imply assault.

“If you have genital injuries, it is strongly supportive of some degree of sexual assault,” said Thompson.

 “Logically the inverse would have to be true, then. If genital injury is strong evidence of sexual assault, the lack of that is at least some evidence that there wasn't sexual assault?” asked Archer.

“No, I'm not sure that ... that those two equate. It has become very clear that people can be sexually assaulted, and have no genital injury." Thompson said, and explained that other factors and evidence in an investigation, such as this victim being found undressed, would help determine if someone was sexually assaulted or not. "I think the absence of genital injuries is a data point, but it's not the controlling data point.”

That interchange was edited for time.

The court is video streaming the trial on the Alaska Court System website. Prior permission was granted for these recordings for use in our coverage.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.