‘Extremely violent, unnecessary crime,’ victim’s mom says about Hughson man’s death

Darren Jack Merenda
Darren Jack Merenda

Donna Butcher wanted to make it clear to the court and state parole officials that her son, Donald Deane Futch, was the victim of a premeditated “extremely violent, unnecessary crime.”

She spoke in a Stanislaus County courtroom about the impact of her son’s death. If she’s able, Butcher said she plans on attending every parole hearing for Darren Jack Merenda, the Turlock man convicted twice of killing her son.

Merenda was back in a state prison this week after a second Stanislaus County judge sentenced him for stabbing Futch, 34, of Hughson. Four years ago, an appellate court overturned his first murder conviction in Futch’s death and said Merenda deserved a new trial.

Like the first jury, the second jury in April found Merenda guilty of first-degree murder. The second murder conviction produced the same prison sentence for Merenda as the first trial.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Rick Distaso on Aug. 13 sentenced Merenda to 25 years to life in prison, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees, who prosecuted Merenda.

On Wednesday, Merenda, 40, of Turlock was serving his sentence at California State Prison, Corcoran. He will become eligible for parole in May 2031, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Futch Donal_fitted.jpeg
Donald Deane Futch was stabbed to death on Sept. 12, 2009, in Turlock, California. Futch is pictured in this May 2009 photo. Donna Butcher

Rees argued in both trials that Merenda stabbed Futch, 34, of Hughson in a dispute over a woman. The fatal stabbing occurred Sept. 12, 2009, when the two men agreed to meet to discuss their dispute in an alley behind a Colorado Avenue apartment complex in Turlock.

Merenda had been living at the apartment complex, where he and his neighbor, Brooke Barker, became friends. Merenda and Barker dated from May to June 2009. Barker broke off her relationship with Merenda and began dating Futch in July 2009.

On the night of the stabbing, Merenda saw Barker and Futch at a Turlock bar. Merenda then sent Barker two text messages, but she didn’t respond. Barker handed her cell phone to Futch for him to read the messages, Rees has said.

The two men then sent taunting text messages to each other before meeting in the alley. Rees has said in court that Futch was unarmed, but Merenda had hidden a 10-inch, double-blade dagger under his shirt.

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Futch was stabbed 11 times and pronounced dead at the scene. A forensic medical examiner testified in the first trial that one of the stab wounds in Futch’s chest was 13 inches deep.

On Feb. 23, 2015, the California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the jury’s verdict in Merenda’s first trial. The appellate court said Merenda deserved a new trial because he was deprived of his right to have a defense attorney of his choice, according to the appellate court’s written opinion.

The appellate court determined that the prosecutor, Rees, “inadvertently misled the court” by failing to provide the trial judge all information about a key witness who was served with a subpoena to testify. Merenda’s request to delay the trial to hire a new attorney was denied because of the witness’s availability, but the witness never showed up to testify.

Rees has said she didn’t agree with the appellate court’s decision, “but I must respect the decision and abide by it.”

No real sense of closure

Futch, who was known to his family as “Donny,” had four children: Taylor, Elias Futch, Justice Futch and Pat Lafebre. He had moved his family to Hughson to open a Modesto branch of Bay Power, which supplies circuit breakers and other equipment to the electrical industry.

His mother said her son was a good man, who was involved in his community. Butcher said her son helped coach youth football and was dedicated to making the Modesto branch of the business thrive.

She didn’t expect any new information to be revealed, but Butcher said she was worried that Merenda’s second trial might have a different outcome or a reduced prison sentence. She’s glad the case is over, but there’s no real sense of closure for her.

“There’s only closure in that he’s off the street, and he won’t do this to anyone else,” Butcher told The Bee in a phone interview. “You have to learn how to live with it.”

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.