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Posted on Fri, Dec. 17, 2004

Murder case prosecution without body a rare event

Mercury News

Jeanine Harms has not been seen since July 27, 2001, and her body has never been found, but prosecutors will try to prove that a San Jose man killed her.

Murder cases without the victim's body are rare but convictions are possible, court experts said.

``There is no legal requirement that you have a dead body to prosecute a murder case,'' said Jim Hammer, a legal analyst and former head of the San Francisco District Attorney's homicide unit. ``Homicide is the unlawful killing of a person. You simply have to prove that the person is not going to walk in alive five years later.''

In the past 20 years, San Mateo County prosecutors have filed murder charges twice in cases without the body -- both of them involving missing women -- and trial is set to begin Jan. 24 in one of the cases.

And in Santa Clara County, ``we've done it a couple of times,'' said Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu. ``It's not commonplace but certainly not impossible by any means.''

Since the night Harms disappeared, ``she's never gone to work, never contacted her family, never used her credit cards, never used her car again -- all of those things lead you to believe she's dead, that she met with foul play.''

Maurice Xavier Nasmeh, 40, a San Jose architect who met Harms at a Campbell bar on the night she disappeared and was the last person seen with her, was arrested early Thursday by Los Gatos/Monte Sereno police. He is to be arraigned Monday on murder charges.

``This is a heartbreak for her family, not having the remains for closure,'' said Sinunu, who has stayed in close contact with Harms' family for the past two years. She was the one who called Harms' parents early Thursday to tell them the arrest of their daughter's alleged killer was imminent.

The San Mateo County case scheduled to begin Jan. 24 involves the 1991 disappearance of Donna Morrow of Menlo Park, who vanished five days before Christmas. The investigation focused on her husband, Joe Morrow, a businessman, but he dropped out of sight in 1993.

``It took us 11 years to find him in the Philippines, but he was arrested and brought back,'' said Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County chief deputy district attorney. ``She was devoted to her children and we have to show she never would have left them.''

Wagstaffe said defense attorneys are likely to bring in witnesses to testify about alleged sightings of the victim and try to prove she simply ran away.

``You end up with sightings from around the world, people saying I think I saw the victim walking down the street in Arizona or on the bayou in Louisiana,'' Wagstaffe said. ``As prosecutors, we have to have witnesses who can come in and make it clear the victim never would have disappeared on her own.''

Prosecutors also don't have to prove how someone was killed. Scott Peterson, a Modesto fertilizer salesman, was convicted of murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn son. Because only her torso was recovered, prosecutors and the coroner were not able to prove how she died.

In a Santa Clara County case, two men were convicted of killing Gilroy restaurant owner Young Kim last year, but his wife was acquitted of murder charges.

``I think it was because the jury questioned her involvement in the case, not because there was no body,'' Sinunu said.

In another Santa Clara County case, Mark Christopher Crew is on death row in San Quentin Prison for killing his bride of two months, Nancy Jo Crew, for her money and possessions in 1982.

Jurors heard testimony that Crew and an accomplice chopped off his wife's head and stuffed her body into a 55-gallon drum filled with cement, but the remains were never found.

Contact Linda Goldston at lgoldston@ or (408) 920-5862.

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