Almost 10 months after being convicted of first-degree murder for the death of a Hughson man, 33-year-old Turlock resident Darren Merenda was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Since his conviction in October 2011 for the murder of 34-year-old Donald Futch, Merenda has been seeking to have the original verdict tossed out and obtain a new trial, but in July Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Dawna Reeves denied the defendant’s motion and set a sentencing date for Aug. 10.
During the trial the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office presented Merenda as a man obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, Brooke Barker, who had moved onto a relationship with Futch. The prosecution claimed Merenda was jealous of the attention Barker gave to Futch and wanted him out of the picture.
Merenda and Barker both lived in the same Colorado Avenue apartment complex in Turlock and dated briefly in 2009. Barker began dating Futch, a father of four and a youth sports coach, after ending the relationship with Merenda.
Merenda continued to make contact with Barker and leave her gifts and cash that she accepted, according to testimony revealed during the trial.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2011, Merenda sent two text messages to Barker after seeing her and Futch at Staley’s bar in Turlock. She did not respond, however Futch responded back to Merenda and a terse exchange of texts ensued between the two men before they agreed to talk face to face in the apartment complex parking lot.
As Merenda headed out of his apartment and toward the parking lot he grabbed a 10-inch double-blade dagger.
Barker testified in the trial that after speaking briefly in the parking lot the two men moved toward an alley and she saw Merenda bring out the dagger and attack Futch. Merenda claimed it was Futch who attacked him and that he was just trying to defend himself. Futch was stabbed 11 times and was mortally wounded in the fight. The forensic medical examiner who testified at the trial explained that one of the fatal wounds was 13 inches deep into Futch’s chest.
During the trial Merenda took the stand in his own defense and testified that he felt threatened by Futch and took the dagger with him as a precaution.
Merenda was found wearing his blood-soaked clothes about an hour later on the kitchen floor of his apartment.
A rifle was found in Merenda’s bedroom with ammunition next to it. In his testimony Merenda said he tried to shoot himself after the fatal encounter, but that the gun jammed.
Public defender Saul Garcia, who represented Merenda during the trial, told the jurors Merenda’s insecurity led him to take the dagger.
“There are two sides to Darren Merenda,” Garcia said during his closing arguments. “One side was confident, smart, well-liked, and peaceful. The other side was needy, grandiose and insecure. There was a side of him that felt inadequate and he covered it up with bravado. That bravado kept Darren from backing off. But it was that fear that led him to arm himself.”
Garcia attempted to persuade the jury to come back with a verdict for a lesser count of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.
The appeal for a new trial was based largely on Merenda’s request for a new lawyer and that a key witness never took the stand.
Prior to the trial beginning Garcia asked for a continuance mainly because Merenda wanted to hire a private defense attorney. The request for the continuance was denied in part because a key witness — Merenda’s roommate Peter De La Cruz, an active duty serviceman in the Army — would only be stateside for a short time and his testimony had to be obtained before he was deployed.
De la Cruz was seen as a key witness to both the prosecution and the defense. Garcia even mentioned De La Cruz in his opening statements to the jury as a person who could testify about Merenda’s fear of Futch.
Just as the trial got underway it was learned De La Cruz was overseas and would not likely be made available. Because of De La Cruz’s absence Garcia asked for a mistrial, saying he felt blindsided by the news that De La Cruz wasn’t present because he believed that was the exact reason why a continuance had not been granted.
In a brief hearing held outside the jury’s presence, district attorney’s office investigator Steven Jacobson testified to the lengths the prosecution had gone to in trying to get De La Cruz to trial. Jacobson said he had received several assurances from the Army that De La Cruz would be here for the trial, but after Sept. 26 things changed. Jacobson said at that point the Army said they would not force De la Cruz to return on a state subpoena. Jacobson said attempts were made to get a federal subpoena, but to no avail.
Reeves denied the request for a mistrial and the trial continued.
After his conviction Merenda hired private attorney Kirk McAllister, who attempted to obtain a new trial for Merenda or have the charges reduced. According to the court records, an appeal of the sentencing has been filed.
For the Futch family the sentencing has brought some form of closure.
“Almost three years to the day after this brutal and premeditated murder, Donnie Futch’s family and friends have some amount of closure and justice. His children, of course, will never be made whole,” said Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees.
During the previously held sentencing hearing Taylor Futch, the victim’s teenage daughter, addressed Merenda, stating: “Don’t forget my face. Don’t forget the sound of my cries. I hope they stay with you forever.”