A Turlock man who won a new trial when an appellate court tossed out a jury’s verdict finding him guilty of stabbing a Hughson 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.
After the verdict was handed down, the appeal process was in motion and based largely 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 one another, according to the appeal court documents. Merenda stated Garcia was not his counsel of choice, but the judge held to the prosecution’s argument that the trial had to start as 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. Prosecutors say the testimony 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 great 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 was that Merenda was obsessed with rekindling a romance with neighbor Brooke Barker whom he dated briefly in 2009 while living in the same Colorado Avenue apartment complex in Turlock. After breaking it off with Merenda, Barker began dating Donald Futch, a father of four and a youth sports coach. Merenda continued to make contact with Barker and leave her gifts and cash that she accepted.
In the early morning 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. Futch and Merenda exchanged terse texts before they agreed to meet face-to-face in the apartment complex parking lot. As Merenda headed out to 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 Futch attacked him and that he was defending himself. Futch was fatally stabbed 11 times.
Merenda is set to be sentenced May 28.