ORANGE — Fourteen-year-old Danny Connolly and his mother had been at odds for months--a conflict that exploded one day after school with an argument over a handful of missing cookies, a witness for the teenager testified Wednesday.
The Yorba Linda teen has confessed to fatally shooting his mother in the back and was in court for a hearing to decide whether he should stand trial for murder as an adult.
His defense attorney insists the shooting was an aberration for an otherwise wholesome teen and introduced testimony from eight character witnesses who described Connolly as a loving boy with no previous history of violence.
For the youth, the dispute over a half-dozen cookies was the breaking point that capped several months of tension between mother and son, said Joseph Phelan, a retired peace officer from the California Youth Authority who interviewed the teenager and his family.
"These are small matters that most of us would consider trivial, I think, but Dan did not," said Phelan, who believes Connolly could be rehabilitated.
On the afternoon of Feb. 22, Connolly allegedly loaded a pistol belonging to his fire captain father and fitted the gun with a makeshift silencer--from a plastic bottle.
The prosecutor alleged in court Wednesday that the teen walked up to his 42-year-old mother, Cindy Connolly, at the kitchen sink, shot her in the back and then considered shooting his father too.
The teenager's hearing continues today in Orange County Juvenile Court, and Judge Frank F. Fasel is expected to rule Friday on whether the case should be moved to adult court.
Under a year-old California law, juveniles as young as 14 can be tried as adults and if convicted, face a maximum of life in state prison. Those convicted in Juvenile Court serve their time in the California Youth Authority, which doesn't hold anyone past 25 years old.
On Wednesday, Connolly's family and friends insisted that the teenager needs rehabilitation--not a stint in state prison.
Connolly sat somberly with his manacled hands folded together as he listened to his grandmother, his Little League coaches, a next-door neighbor and a church leader speak on his behalf.
They talked about the boy's "perfect" family life and his remorse since his mother's death.
"It wasn't Danny that day," said John McPhillips, a firefighter who is a friend of the family and often took trips with the 14-year-old.
Glenda Paulsen, Cindy Connolly's mother, called her grandson "my teddy bear" and said he should be "home where he belongs."
"He loves his mother with all his heart and he still does," Paulsen said. "Whatever she said, he minded."
Prosecutors are seeking to try Connolly as an adult and allege the slaying was premeditated.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan McNerney said Connolly told a police officer that he thought about killing his parents at least two months prior to the shooting. Then on the day of his mother's death, the Esperanza High School student made a $20 bet with a schoolmate that he would carry out his plan, according to the prosecutor.
During a sixth-period class, McNerney said, Connolly told a friend, "Tonight's the night, dude."
The prosecutor said that after the teenager shot his mother in the kitchen, he chased her throughout the house and shot her again. She was hit by four bullets. Afterward, McNerney told the judge, the boy obtained a shotgun and loaded it with three bullets with the idea of killing his dad too.
McNerney said he considers the teenager an appropriate candidate for adult court under the new law, which lowered from 16 to 14 the age for moving serious felonies out of Juvenile Court.
"We want to lay out all the facts," McNerney said. "We want to apply the law equally to a kid from a comfortable home in the suburb vs. a kid from a rough neighborhood downtown."
On Tuesday, a 15-year-old from San Diego who shot a pizza deliveryman became the youngest person in the state sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Phil Connolly, Danny's father, said after Wednesday's hearing he felt confident the character witnesses would help his son's case.
"All were very consistent. Everybody has known him for years," the father said. "Danny's very nervous. He just wants resolution."