Jake Couture slaying: James Menard guilty of felony murder, manslaughter

James Menard's mother, right, reaches out to hug him before he is taken away after his trial ended Friday at the Collier County Courthouse. The jury deliberated for four hours and rejected the top count of second-degree murder and found Menard guilty of a lesser included offense of manslaughter, as well as third-degree murder for the death of 17-year-old Jake Couture. They also rejected an attempted second-degree murder charge, but found him guilty of aggravated battery, a lesser offense. He was also found guilty of armed trespass for breaking into the Brittany Bay Apartments, a gated community on Collier Boulevard. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

James Menard's mother, right, reaches out to hug him before he is taken away after his trial ended Friday at the Collier County Courthouse. The jury deliberated for four hours and rejected the top count of second-degree murder and found Menard guilty of a lesser included offense of manslaughter, as well as third-degree murder for the death of 17-year-old Jake Couture. They also rejected an attempted second-degree murder charge, but found him guilty of aggravated battery, a lesser offense. He was also found guilty of armed trespass for breaking into the Brittany Bay Apartments, a gated community on Collier Boulevard. Lexey Swall/Staff

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— Jurors found James Menard guilty Friday of felony murder in the death of 17-year-old Gulf Coast High School student Jake Couture on New Year's Day last year.

It was a charge added by the prosecution a week before trial to bolster its case and alleged Menard shot Couture during the commission of another crime, trespassing at Brittany Bay, a gated community in North Naples. The added charge turned out to be fortuitous for the prosecution because the six-man jury deliberated four hours and rejected the top count, second-degree murder, which required them to find Menard had a depraved mind, ill will, spite and hatred when he shot Couture.

Instead, they found him guilty of manslaughter, a lesser and included charge.

“It’s not a happy moment for anybody,” Jeanie Couture, the teen’s mother, said after the verdict as she stood outside the courtroom with her husband Craig. “Both sides of the families have a lot to cry about.”

She said her son and 15-year-old Michael Fleitas were innocent bystanders who had nothing to do with the dispute that unraveled between Menard and 22-year-old Brandon Standifer that night.

“This never should have happened to him, to Michael, who was an innocent bystander, running the moment that gun came out, running for their lives,” she said.

In reaching their verdict on the manslaughter charge, the six-man jury rejected the top count, second-degree murder, which required them to find Menard had a depraved mind, ill will, spite and hatred as he shot Couture.

When Menard took the stand Thursday, he told jurors he was worried about his safety and pulled a .40 caliber Glock gun from his waistband and fired it at least five times, injuring two others, after being confronted with what appeared to be an Uzi. The “Uzi” held by Brandon Morales, another teen, turned out to be a toy gun.

Menard testified Standifer pushed him to the ground and he’d had no opportunity to leave. “I had a weapon pointed at me and another (person) aggressing toward me,” Menard told jurors. “… I was scared for my life.”

Jurors also rejected a second-degree attempted murder charge involving Fleitas, who was shot in the buttocks as he fled, but found Menard guilty of aggravated battery, a lesser offense, for Fleitas’ injury.

They found Menard not guilty of attempted second-degree murder in the shooting of Standifer, who was shot in the chest after shoving Menard. They also found him guilty of armed trespass for entering the gated community, but acquitted him of a second armed trespass charge that alleged he remained there after being told to leave.

Menard was the only defense witness after the state presented about 15 witnesses during the four-day trial.

Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker ordered a presentence investigation, which will weigh this crime and Menard’s criminal history — which includes no prior adult convictions — and offer a guideline recommendation.

The judge set sentencing for Feb. 11, when lead prosecutor Mara Marzano will seek life in state prison on the felony murder charge, the maximum, while defense attorney Tim Moffitt will seek a lesser term. The manslaughter charge, a second-degree felony, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Because Menard can’t be sentenced on both manslaughter and felony murder charges, they would be merged at sentencing.

After the verdict, Couture’s sister, Dana Woodall, contended Menard “didn’t seem to care too much about what we have lost here.”

Her brother had a big heart and would have given Menard a second chance if he’d survived, she said tearfully, adding, “Jake would have totally forgiven him and loved him.”

The shooting occurred last year about 9:15 p.m. New Year’s Day, when Couture, and three friends, Standifer, who lives in Tampa, Fleitas, Morales, 17, both of Naples. They returned to Morales’ apartment after purchasing beer for an underage neighbor and found Menard and three teens, Carlos Narzco, Philip Markle and Jacob Markham in front of the apartment.

Standifer testified he took off his shirt to intimidate Menard and the three teens, telling them to “get the ‘f’ out of here.’ ”

That prompted a scuffle between Menard and Standifer that ended with Menard pulling the gun, shooting Standifer in the chest at close range, Fleitas in the buttocks as he ran away and Jake Couture in the back. The bullet hit his spinal cord and lung.

Collier County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Menard four days later and he’s remained in the county jail ever since.

During closing arguments, Marzano held up photos of shell casings, Standifer’s blood in the driveway and Couture’s blood in the apartment entryway, arguing that Menard and his friends lay in wait for the others and refused to leave when they were asked to.

“Each trigger pull was a conscious decision to fire,” Marzano argued, noting it takes seven pounds of pressure to pull the trigger.

As Marzano argued to jurors, Craig Couture wrapped his arm around his wife, while Menard, who wore a brown suit, took notes at the defense table, occasionally looking up at Marzano.

In his closing remarks, Moffitt focused almost exclusively on the Uzi-like toy Morales brandished during the confrontation. He contended Standifer’s aggression wasn’t warranted and Menard was faced with Morales coming toward him with what appeared to be an Uzi, forcing him to react with deadly force to protect his life because he was outnumbered.

“Nobody knew it was a toy, except for Morales,” Moffitt argued, calling it self-defense. “Menard) didn’t pull his gun first. He only pulled his gun after being pushed to the ground and (seeing) another brandishing a firearm.”

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