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A judge has thrown out the key evidence in the Jeanine Harms murder trial, potentially collapsing the high-profile case against a former Campbell architect arrested 14 months ago after a painstaking 3 1/2-year investigation.
Los Gatos police exceeded the bounds of their search warrant when they seized the Jeep Grand Cherokee owned by Maurice Nasmeh in 2001, shortly after Harms, 42, went missing, said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Linda Condron.
The case against Nasmeh -- who met Harms for the first time in a Campbell bar on the night she disappeared and is the last person known to have seen her alive -- hinges on fibers found in the cargo area of his Jeep during that search. Investigators say those fibers match a yarn crafts project that Harms had worked on in her home in Los Gatos, as well as fibers found on Harms' area rug, which police believe was used in disposing of her body.
Harms' body has never been found, but the rug -- incredibly -- was located in 2003 after police publicized a picture of it.
Without the fiber evidence, ``there's nothing to connect Maurice to the homicide,'' said Nasmeh's attorney, Dan Jensen.
``I feel the system is working,'' Jensen said, ``but I'm not celebrating.'' Jensen moved to have the case dismissed Friday afternoon, but Superior Court Judge Randall Rice denied the request, giving the district attorney's office time to decide its next step.
Harms' close-knit family members, who have spoken openly about their belief that Nasmeh is guilty, were uncharacteristically subdued about the judge's decision. ``We've been waiting a long time, and we'll wait longer,'' said Harms' father, Jesus Sanchez.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Tomkins expressed disappointment with Condron's ruling, which he said ``suppressed important evidence.'' Legal experts expect prosecutors to appeal, but Tomkins said his office has not decided whether to do so.
In her ruling, Condron -- herself a former prosecutor -- said investigators ``inexplicably'' violated the required search protocol.
Los Gatos police originally obtained a warrant to search Nasmeh's vehicle, the ruling said. But then they seized it, a move not allowed by the warrant, and kept it for 24 days. It should have taken only one or two days to conduct the entire search, Condron wrote, ``and no justification was given for the additional 22 days that the defendant was deprived of use and possession of the Jeep.''
Had the officers needed more time, they could have asked for court permission. But ``inexplicably they failed to seek a magistrate's approval for a lengthy, intensive seizure and search'' of the car.
Jensen said Nasmeh, who remains in custody without bail, showed little emotion when he told him about Thursday's ruling. ``He doesn't have much faith in the system,'' Jensen said. When the attorney gave the news to Nasmeh's mother, Doris Bliven, he said, ``she smiled, but she knows it's going to be hard.''
Nasmeh has said that on that July evening, he left Harms alive and asleep on her living-room sofa.
Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department Chief Scott Seaman referred calls to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.
Harms' disappearance in July 2001 captured national attention and was featured on a television true-crime show, America's Most Wanted. Her friends and family kept interest in the case alive when the investigation lagged. They held annual prayer vigils and raised funds to place a memorial bench at Los Gatos civic center.
The key break in the case came in July of 2003 when a rug that had disappeared from Harms' home the night she vanished suddenly turned up. A woman who saw a news report about the missing rug called police, saying she had found it two years earlier next to a shopping center dumpster.