A Turlock man who won a new trial when an appellate court tossed out a jury’s verdict finding him guilty of stabbing a man he perceived as his romantic rival, has once again been found guilty of first-degree murder.
A Stanislaus County jury found Darren Jack Merenda guilty of first-degree murder for the stabbing death of Donald Deane Futch, 34, of Hughson.
On Feb. 23, 2015, the Fifth Appellate district in the California Court of Appeals overturned the conviction on the grounds that Merenda’s Sixth Amendment right was violated because he was deprived his legal representation of choice. Merenda was found guilty in October 2011 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in August 2012.
Almost immediately after the verdict was handed down, the appeal process was put into motion and it largely was based on Merenda’s request for a new attorney being denied and that a key witness was in the wind for the entirety of the trial.
About two weeks prior to the trial beginning Stanislaus County Public Defender Saul Garcia, who was representing Merenda, asked for a continuance because Merenda wanted to hire defense attorney Kirk McAllister. McAllister was present at the hearing and was ready to take over the case, but he was not prepared to go to trial that quickly, and as such was requesting a continuance. The prosecution objected to the continuance of the trial because they had a “critical witness” who was only available to testify for a short period of time. The witness was Merenda’s roommate Peter De La Cruz, an active duty serviceman in the Army serving in Afghanistan. The prosecution told the court De La Cruz would only be made available for a short time frame and that he was already “in transit.”
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Dawna Frenchie denied the continuance and ordered the trial to begin as scheduled.
Merenda made other attempts to replace his counsel, including on the day the trial was set to start. In a closed session, Merenda told the judge he didn’t believe the public defender was adequately prepared to start the trial and that they had difficulty communicating with each other, according to the appeal court documents. Merenda again stated Garcia was not his counsel of choice, but the judge again held to the prosecution’s argument that the trial had to start when it was scheduled because of witness availability and thus the trial began.
De La Cruz was seen as a key witness to both the prosecution and the defense. The prosecution said he was a critical witness because he could show Merenda acted with premeditation. Garcia believed De La Cruz could help the defense by showing Merenda was fearful of Futch, and mentioned this theory and De La Cruz by name in his opening statements to the jury.
Just as the trial got underway in 2011, 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. The mistrial was denied and the trial resumed.
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.
In their ruling, the appellate court stated the court’s denial of a continuance “was based on erroneous representations. De La Cruz was not a critical witness for the prosecution, he was not in transit from Afghanistan, and he was not subject to an enforceable subpoena.”
The appellate court stated the prosecutor “inadvertently misled the court, which resulted in the denial of the continuance necessary for defendant’s counsel of choice to represent him.”
The prosecution’s theory of the case during both trials was that Merenda was a man obsessed with rekindling a romance with his neighbor, Brooke Barker.
Merenda and Barker both lived in the same Colorado Avenue apartment complex in Turlock and dated briefly in 2009. Barker began dating Donald 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.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2009, 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 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.
Merenda is set to be sentenced May 28.