James Menard sentenced to life in prison for killing Gulf Coast student Jake Couture

James Menard enters his sentencing hearing in Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker's courtroom on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, at the Collier County Courthouse in Naples. Menard received a life sentence for the New Year's Day 2010 shooting death of 17-year-old Jake Couture.   David Albers/Staff

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James Menard enters his sentencing hearing in Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker's courtroom on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, at the Collier County Courthouse in Naples. Menard received a life sentence for the New Year's Day 2010 shooting death of 17-year-old Jake Couture. David Albers/Staff

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Update:11:27 a.m.

James Menard has been sentenced to life in prison.

From earlier

Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker has briefly postponed the sentencing until attorneys resolve several issues surrounding the case.

Among them is the specter of double jeopardy. Although convicted of both felony murder and manslaughter in Jake Couture's death, James Menard cannot be sentenced on both, Baker says. The judge isn't sure which one to drop, and attorneys didn't come with case law.

Menard's attorney, Timothy Moffit, must also go over state probation's pre-sentence investigation with his client during the break.

The hearing will resume at 10 a.m.

Felony murder is a second-degree felony punishable by a maximum 15 years in prison. The manslaughter charge, a second-degree felony, is raised to a first-degree felony by Menard's use of a firearm. A first-degree felony carries a maximum 30-year sentence.

Adding to the confusion, Menard was also convicted of aggravated battery with a firearm, a felony that falls under the state's 10-20-Life law, which imposes stiff sentencing ranges for crimes involving a firearm. Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano pointed out the charge would carry a minimum 25-year sentence and a maximum of life.

Baker said he wants the double-jeopardy issue resolved for the sentencing scoresheet, a calculation required by law. But he has warned that he will not hew closely to the form.

"Mr. Menard, you have to accept a great deal of responsibility here," he said.

The judge also had words for Brandon Morales, a friend of Couture who carried a toy gun during the confrontation. The toy, an Uzi-replica pellet gun, contributed to Menard's decision to pull his gun, the suspect testified at his trial. Baker suggested the toy heightened the situation, and he said deputies could have responded with force had they been in Menard's situation.

"I'm still saying, Mr. Menard, that doesn't excuse what happened," Baker said.

The judge began the hearing by denying two motions filed by Moffit. One sought a retrial on the aggravated battery charge. The other sought acquittal on the armed trespass charge.

Court benches are stacked with supporters of Couture, as well as family of Menard.

Posted earlier today:

Convicted killer James Menard will learn his fate this morning when sentenced for the 2010 fatal shooting of Gulf Coast High student Jake Couture.

Menard, 24, was convicted in January of one count each of felony murder and manslaughter in the death of Couture, 17, as well as aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and armed trespass. Two of Couture's friends, Michael Fleitas, 16, and Brandon Standifer, 22, were also injured in the shooting.

"He understands," his attorney, Timothy Moffitt said of the sentencing. "Through this process he's learned a lot about how Florida criminal justice works. He understands he'll be going to prison."

Couture's family members will be allowed to speak at the sentencing, as will Menard's. Both sides will urge Collier Circuit Judge Franklin Baker to sway in one direction in his judgment. Advocates on both sides have also submitted letters to Baker.

Yet the judge is likely bound by the state's 10-20-Life law, which dictates sentencing ranges in felonies where a firearm is present or used. Because Menard used his .40-caliber handgun to kill Couture, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and minimum of 25 years.

The shooting occurred on New Year's Day 2010 during a scuffle between Standifer and Menard in the parking lot of Brittany Bay Apartments. Menard and three friends entered the complex through the exit gate to confront Couture's group of friends. After Menard ignored repeated requests to leave, Standifer pushed him twice, spurring Menard to pull his gun and fire five shots.

Menard was charged with one count of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted second-degree murder. Counts of armed trespass and felony murder were added before the trial.

Late last year, Menard lost an effort to block prosecution through the state's Stand Your Ground law, which permits the use of firearms in limited cases. At trial, he told jurors that Standifer's aggression, coupled with the presence of a toy gun on the scene, heightened his fear.

A panel of six jurors convicted him after four hours of deliberation. They rejected the second-degree murder count for the lesser-included manslaughter charge.

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