When a 23-year-old woman accused Nicholas Howard, an Anchorage recruiter for the United States Marine Corps, of sexually assaulting her in 2011, police believed the case rested largely on DNA evidence.
At the time, the state crime lab that tests DNA had a backlog of hundreds of cases and many months.
So when the Marine Corps offered to take over the case from the Anchorage Police Department to expedite DNA processing, police agreed.
The result: DNA linked Nicholas Howard to the crime and he was court-martialed.
The former gunnery sergeant once in charge of the Marine Corps recruiting efforts in Alaska was found guilty of first-degree sexual assault at a military trial on a Marine Corps installation in San Diego May 3.
Howard was stripped of his military rank and privileges and dishonorably discharged, but he was not sentenced to any jail time.
Military prosecutors had asked for five to seven years, said APD detective Brett Sarber, who testified at the trial with another Anchorage detective and a forensic nurse.
When the sentence was announced "the entire chain of command's jaws dropped," he said. "They could not believe it."
It's not clear why the military chose not to give Howard jail time for an offense as serious as first-degree sexual assault.
"The sentence he received was within the discretion of the court-martial members who heard the entire case," Capt. Jorge Escatell of the 12th Marine Corps Recruiting District told the Daily News
And it may never be clear why Howard walked away.
"(Military justice) is not a really transparent system," said Clint Campion, an Anchorage prosecutor who served as an Army judge advocate general attorney for nine years and is now a member of the Army National Guard.
RECRUITER TO ACCUSED
Nicholas Howard had been a recruiter for the U.S. Marine Corps in Alaska since 2009, according to a short story in the Daily News that noted his promotion. He had an office in the Dimond Mall.
On the night of December 31, 2011, Howard, his wife, her sister, the victim and the victim's boyfriend started a night out at a restaurant in Wasilla, according to detectives' version of events.
After a stop at an Eagle River restaurant for drinks, the group ended up back at Howard's house.
According to police, at one point in the night Howard carried the victim from a hot tub to a camper where she and her boyfriend were planning to sleep. He then locked the camper door and sexually assaulted her on the bed, police said. When the woman's boyfriend, who had been changing clothes, came to the camper he found the woman crying.
The couple left and drove to Alaska Regional Hospital, detectives said.
At the hospital she reported the rape and underwent a sexual assault exam that included the collection of DNA evidence.
In interviews with police, Howard initially denied having sexual contact with the woman.
"There were no witnesses and not enough evidence to make an arrest immediately on the spot," said Sgt. Ken McCoy of the Anchorage Police Department.
Police needed DNA evidence to show that Howard was lying.
At the time, the state crime lab in Anchorage was running a "significant" backlog of cases, said Michelle Collins, an Alaska Crime Detection Lab supervisor.
Police believed it would take 18 to 24 months to get the DNA evidence in the Howard case analyzed, APD spokeswoman Anita Shell said.
Cases in which a suspect is not in custody aren't at the front of the line for DNA testing, Sarber said. That's because once a suspect is arrested, the clock starts ticking on his right to a speedy trial, making those cases more urgent for the lab.
In July 2012, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service asked to take over the case, saying it could quickly process the DNA. The military had an interest in the case because its recruiter -- representing the Marine Corps to the public -- was accused of rape, Campion said.
APD and prosecutors agreed to the handoff.
That's rare, said department spokeswoman Shell. "It only happens once every couple of years."
Today, the crime lab is catching up on its backlog, Collins said. But analysts are still doing initial screenings of evidence that came in last fall, some seven months ago. "We're making headway," she said.
If staffing stays consistent, Collins said, lab managers hope that in a year it will be able to complete DNA screening and analysis within two to three months. "That's the ultimate goal," she said.
At a court martial, there are maximum sentences but no minimum sentences for crimes.
"(The jury panel members) are not obligated to give anyone any jail time," said Campion, who said he didn't know the specifics of the Howard case and was only commenting generally on military court proceedings.
Punishments like discharge, forfeiture of rank, pay and privileges are weighed heavily, he said. They represent not just financial loss but a career.
Howard will also be required to register as a sex offender, according to the APD.
Still, victims and law enforcement agencies might think differently, he said.
Howard made a statement to the court martial during the proceedings, Sarber said. "The defendant took no responsibility for what happened at all," he said.
Calls to Howard's civilian attorney were not answered or returned Tuesday.
Now, prosecutors in Anchorage must weigh whether they will charge Howard in civilian court for the same crime the military has already convicted him of. They are talking to APD, Campion said, but no decision has been made.
When the case was given to the Marine Corps, "we made a decision to let this process run," Campion said. Trying Howard would demand "exceptional circumstances for us to revisit that decision," he said.