Murder charges tossed in '01 death

D.A. could refile case against architect

John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A judge dismissed murder charges against a San Jose architect Wednesday after prosecutors conceded they were unprepared to go to trial in the July 2001 slaying of a Los Gatos woman whose body has never been found.

Maurice Nasmeh was ordered released after spending about 2 1/2 years in jail. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and Santa Clara County prosecutors could refile charges that he killed 42-year-old Jeanine Harms.

"I don't consider (Nasmeh) to be the suspect," Deputy District Attorney Dale Sanderson said after moving to drop the charges. "I consider him to be the murderer."

The defense attorney said the prosecution had scant evidence against Nasmeh, and that its major forensic finding had been called into question because a criminologist who examined it later failed a recertification test.

Nasmeh was arrested in December 2004, but the case bogged down with appeals over the legality of fiber evidence from a rug belonging to Harms.

An appeals court ruled last month that investigators had collected the evidence legally, and the state Supreme Court declined to hear Nasmeh's challenge. The case reverted to Santa Clara County Superior Court last week, where Nasmeh exercised his right to demand a trial within 60 days.

Prosecutors said they needed as much as a year to re-analyze the fiber evidence they believe ties Nasmeh to the killing and agreed to drop the charges.

"That's the only evidence they've got," defense attorney Dan Jensen said. "They were putting all their eggs in one basket, and that basket had a big hole in it."

Harms vanished July 27, 2001, after apparently inviting Nasmeh to her home following a night of bar-hopping in Campbell, police said.

Nasmeh, now 43, was arrested following a 3 1/2-year investigation after police made public a photograph of a Persian-style rug that was among objects missing from Harms' home. Police urged anyone who had a similar rug to share it with police for fiber analysis.

A woman came forward and said she and her daughter had discovered and picked up such a rug about the time Harms disappeared, rolled up near a trash container at a construction site a half-mile from Nasmeh's home.

Analysis by two crime labs indicated that the rug was Harms', and that fibers from it matched ones found at her home and in the cargo bed of Nasmeh's 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee, authorities said.

The integrity of that fiber evidence has since been called into question because a criminologist who examined the rug flunked a subsequent recertification test, Jensen said.

Sanderson declined to comment, saying the fiber analysis was caught up in a personnel question.

"I have full faith in (the original) results," Sanderson said, but he added that "the reanalysis should be done. It literally would have been an injustice to go forward without it."

Jensen maintains that any fiber evidence would prove nothing. He said that both Nasmeh and Harms sat on the rug, then got into Nasmeh's SUV to get beer at a liquor store.

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This article appeared on page B - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle