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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— Convicted killer James Menard will spend his life in prison, a Collier Circuit judge ruled on Friday.

The decision by Judge Franklin Baker concluded a long and emotional sentencing in the 2010 shooting that killed 17-year-old Gulf Coast High student Jake Couture, and it ended a 13-month wait for justice by Couture’s family.

Jurors convicted Menard, 24, in January of felony murder, aggravated manslaughter, aggravated battery with a firearm and armed trespass.

Despite jurors’ rejection of a second-degree murder charge, Baker on Friday emphasized that Menard shouldered no less responsibility when he pulled the trigger.

“Mr. Menard, you have to accept a great deal of what happened here,” he said.

Menard will serve concurrent sentences of 30 years in prison on the aggravated battery charge and five years for armed trespass. Baker struck the aggravated manslaughter charge out of concerns it created double jeopardy with the murder conviction.

The shooting erupted during a dispute between two groups of youth at the Brittany Bay Apartments on New Year’s Day. According to investigator reports, Menard and three of his friends arrived at the complex angry over a robbery of two of the boys earlier in the day.

After knocking on a door at the complex, Menard’s group was met by Couture and friends Michael Fleitas, Brandon Standifer and Brandon Morales, all of whom arrived in Couture’s car following a trip to the store.

Standifer approached Menard, told him to leave and shoved him twice. Menard pulled a .40-caliber pistol and fired five rounds into the crowd, striking Couture in the back and wounding Fleitas and Standifer.

Menard testified he was defending himself from Standifer, and he said he was unnerved by a replica Uzi pellet gun held by Morales.

Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano prosecuted the case for the state. Timothy Moffitt defended Menard.

The double jeopardy issue presented by Menard’s conviction briefly delayed the sentencing, as attorneys searched for case law. Baker acknowledged his decision may present a point of appeal.

The state added the armed trespass and felony murder charges shortly before trial. Both were based upon Menard’s group having entered the apartment complex through its exit gate, a trespass.

Felony murder, or third-degree murder, is described as an unintended murder that occurs in the act of a felony—in Menard’s case, the armed trespass. Although felony murder typically carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. it carried a maximum life sentence for Menard because he used a gun.

Baker warned early in the hearing that his judgment would hinge more upon his impressions of the case than the sentencing guidelines. He also criticized Morales for carrying the pellet gun.

“It’s more than a BB-gun,” he told the courtroom. “It stands out there on the porch.”

Couture’s family members, friends and classmates packed courtroom benches for the hearing, many wearing T-shirts honoring the teen. Menard’s father, step-mother, a sister and a family friend were among those supporting him at the sentencing.

Family of Couture spoke of a loss that often outweighed words, and they appealed to Baker for a life sentence. They described the teenager as a gifted athlete with a heart for those in need. Couture would have graduated high school this year, family noted.

Couture’s father held aloft a photograph of his son as a child.

“This is my son,” he said. “This is what I’ve lost.”

Given her only chance to speak directly to Baker, and to address Menard, Jeanie Couture scolded her son’s killer.

“You are firing a gun into a crowd of children,” she said. “There’s no justification. It’s a choice that you made.”

Menard looked away as she and others spoke to him. Given a chance to speak, he faced the judge and read a brief statement.

“I want you to know I’m truly sorry for what happened that day,” Menard told Baker in an even voice. “I’m sorry Mr. Couture died, and I’m sorry the others were hurt. Thank you.”

Menard’s family apologized to the Coutures and asked Baker not to impose a life sentence.

“Given the chance, he’ll become a responsible young man, hopefully with a family of his own some day,” step-mother Joanne Menard told Baker. “Hopefully we can all become one big family again.”

A loud sob erupted from Menard’s family as the sentence was read, and Menard placed his head in his hands.

Outside the courtroom, Couture’s family appeared relieved by the judgment, if sober to its consequences. Menard’s young life was wasted, they said. But at least he still had a life.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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