Let's get one thing straight first. In America, you're innocent until proven guilty. So Maurice Nasmeh is innocent, even though the architect has already done 2 1/2 years behind bars while awaiting trial in the slaying of Jeanine Harms.

But there was something odd about his news conference Friday at the West San Jose offices of his attorney, Daniel Jensen. Something out of reach, a Rubik's Cube that refused to snap into place.

Nasmeh (pronounced NESS-muh) was engaging when he talked about a fellow inmate who maintained a 500-book lending library. You could sympathize when he talked about the lousy food. He looked like a law associate, fleshier now than when he was arrested but wearing a charcoal pin-striped suit, a subdued checked tie and tasseled black loafers.

Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that the 43-year-old Nasmeh was really wearing an intellectual Kevlar vest. He was almost too measured, too polite, too scripted for the situation he has found himself in. Here's a man who has just spent more than 30 months behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit. And his outrage was all but undetectable. As he talked about his case, he could have been talking of girders on a roof.

Tempered response

When he was asked how he felt about being called a murderer by Deputy District Attorney Dale Sanderson, who has vowed to refile the case, Nasmeh said, "I don't know that merits a response. It was a surprising comment, I'll say that. I don't know what I can do to convince him otherwise."

He saw no point in being bitter. He was disappointed that the dismissal of charges had taken this long. He felt it was a waste of taxpayer money. He was not going to let it interfere with his life. He hoped his friends in the architecture field would give him work.

Finally, I asked him straight out about his measured responses. If I had been wrongly accused and did 2 1/2 years, I'd be a lot angrier, I said. Why wasn't he?

"I think it's a waste of energy to be angry," he said. "I'd rather be constructive. I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed. But to be angry is just a waste of time."

Perhaps it's a pragmatic calculation: Nasmeh has an extraordinarily media-savvy attorney in Jensen. On the cool medium of television, outrage rarely plays well. And as Nasmeh explained, anger wasn't going to convince the DA to drop the case. So maybe the strategy was to show a calm professional, a guy miscast as a killer, a man who could design your garage or bathroom.

His story

Certainly there was a flat flavor to his version of what happened on the July 2001 night that he met Jeanine Harms at a bar and went back to her Los Gatos home.

He said they sat on the carpet of her house, where she sang him a Neil Young song with the guitar she was learning ("She played it pretty well," he said). Then they went to the store to get beer. Afterward, they watched music videos before she dozed off. She told him she was going to sleep on the couch and he could stay around to sober up if he liked. He let himself out. No, he didn't kill her.

You're innocent until proven guilty in America. Maurice Nasmeh is innocent, whatever weird purgatory the court decision this week plunged him into. With the guidance of Jensen, he might well beat the case on the fiber evidence. Or the DA could decide it isn't worth pursuing.

Whatever the legal outcome, you still had the feeling that Nasmeh's story of that night was missing something, a piece of detail that speaks to the messiness of human emotion and desire. It wasn't in the script Friday. And because the other person there that night has never been found, we'll never know her story.

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5877.