After several hours of deliberation spread over two days, a Stanislaus County jury filed into a courtroom Tuesday and returned a guilty verdict for a Turlock man accused of stabbing to death his romantic rival.
The jury of six men and six women found 32-year-old Darren Merenda guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 34-year-old Hughson resident Donald Futch, a father of four and youth sports coach.
In finding Merenda guilty of first-degree murder the jury found the prosecution’s argument true that Merenda met Futch in the parking lot of a Turlock apartment complex with the intention of hurting or killing Futch.
After a series of texts and phone calls that began around 2:30 a.m. Sept. 12, 2009, Merenda and Futch agreed to meet in the parking lot of a Colorado Avenue apartment complex to talk about Merenda continuing to text Brooke Barker, who was currently dating Futch and had dated Merenda in the past. 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 a dagger and attack Futch. Merenda claimed it was Futch who attacked him and that he was just trying to defend himself. Futch was mortally wounded in the fight. Merenda was arrested hours later with Futch’s blood still on his clothes.
The prosecution said Merenda killed Futch because he was jealous of the affection Barker was lavishing on him.
A sentencing hearing for Merenda is set for Nov. 29. Merenda could be facing 25 years to life.
The tension in the courtroom was palpable as family and friends of both men waited for the verdict, especially for Futch’s youngest children, 15-year-old Taylor Futch and 13-year-old Justice Futch. For Taylor, who attended every day of the two week trial, the reading of the verdict was met with tears of relief.
“It was such a release,” Taylor said outside the courtroom. “When they read that verdict it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I wanted to be here for my dad and stay strong for him. I’m just glad they made the right decision.”
The case against Merenda was handed over to the jury on Thursday and they were given multiple options to weigh.
Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees, who prosecuted the case, told the jury this was a clear case of first-degree murder and deserved an appropriate verdict.
“There was no provocation and this wasn’t self-defense,” Rees told the jury. “This was cold-blooded murder. He stabbed him 11 times. One wound was so deep it dissected his heart in two.
“Donnie Futch was a proud father, a coach, and a caring human being,” Rees said. “The only mistake he made was dating a woman who had a stalker.”
In her closing argument Rees characterized Merenda as an insecure man obsessed with his neighbor and former lover, and “fed up with being made fun of” by Barker to her new boyfriend.
Public defender Saul Garcia, who represented Merenda, also called his client insecure, but said it was that insecurity that led him to fear for his safety and bring a dagger with him to his meeting with Futch.
“There are two sides to Darren Merenda,” Garcia said. “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,” Garcia said. “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.
“There are plenty of reasons to doubt that this was premeditated murder,” Garcia said. “All the evidence suggests it was an emotional, impulsive response. He’s prepared to be accountable; however, it should be for the right verdict.”
After the verdict, Garcia said an appeal would be filed as a matter of course. During the trial the Merenda family had expressed frustration that their request to bring in a new attorney was denied. The request for a continuance was denied in part because it was thought a witness who was serving overseas was only going to be available for a short time. As it turned out, the witness was never in the states and was not sent back by the army to testify.
For the Futch family there was no question that the jury reached the right verdict.
“When things went wrong my dad would hold me and tell me everything would be ok,” Taylor said. “I felt his presence with me in the courtroom and remembered his words. And he was right.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.