The thought that their 15-year-old son could have remained in a California Youth Authority cell until the age of 25 for killing his best friend with a rifle made Ron and Maria Simmons burst into tears several times during his sentencing hearing Friday.
But when a Juvenile Court judge sentenced Chris Simmons to at least a year in the less severe county probation camp system, the parents' sobs turned to tears of relief.
"I'm happy," said Maria Simmons, who had not spoken publicly since the Feb. 1 slaying at the family's home in Whittier, when her son shot 15-year-old Nick Calamusa in the forehead.
Police originally ruled that the shooting had been an accident, but then pursued the case as a homicide, saying that while Chris Simmons might not have intended to kill his friend, he should be held accountable for pulling the trigger. In June, he was found guilty of second-degree murder.
The killing shook the two boys' circle of friends. They remembered the two always together at Whittier's skate park. Many felt that, with Chris Simmons incarcerated, they had lost two friends, not just one.
Justine Chavez, 15, said she had been on the phone with Calamusa when he was shot. She said she was certain the shooting had been an accident, and she has become Chris Simmons' confidant in the last four months, taking his weekly calls from custody.
"I know for a fact that he would never do that on purpose," she said. "I know Chris, and I know Nick. They were always together, and Chris would not have killed him on purpose."
The prosecution did not argue that point. "We never presented evidence saying that the minor intended to kill Nick Calamusa," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Kim. "But it's crystal clear that intentional and deliberate actions by the minor led to the killing."
The hunting rifle under his father's bed and the bullets hidden in the closet were a constant temptation for Chris Simmons, both sides in the case agreed. He had loaded the gun in the past and had even pulled the trigger. But "nothing came out," he told detectives. So that afternoon, when he pointed the rifle at Calamusa, he was certain it wouldn't fire, Chris Simmons told detectives.
Police and the prosecution said that Chris Simmons had taken the rifle and the bullets from his parents' room to the living room. He and a 13-year-old friend who also was in the home at the time of the shooting loaded the rifle and pulled the trigger several times with no success, said Whittier Police Officer Alan Dela Pena.
Chavez testified that the teenagers were playing with the rifle, and that Chris Simmons was pointing it at Calamusa as Calamusa talked on the phone.
Calamusa asked Chris Simmons if the rifle was real, and he said "yes."
"Don't point it at me," Calamusa said, laughing.
"I dare you to shoot me," he continued. "You won't do it because you will be charged with murder."
Then he said to Chavez, laughing: "Just so you know, if they shoot me, you know who it was--it was Chris." The phone went dead soon after that. Chavez said she didn't hear the gun blast.
The parents of the two boys were initially united by the tragedy. But as the case progressed, the families separated.
"I went to the cemetery to visit my son today," Calamusa's mother, Pamela Pellizzon, said at the trial. "I'm not here to give Chris moral support. They [the parents] are responsible. They should be locked up."
The prosecution has not pressed charges against the Simmonses, who will be able to visit their son on weekends at the juvenile camp, which is run by the county Probation Department.
The sentence imposed Friday by Long Beach Juvenile Court Judge Gibson Lee calls for the case to be reviewed after Chris Simmons has spent a year in custody. At that point, the youth will be freed on home probation or ordered to continue his sentence at camp.
In imposing the sentence, Lee said that the shooting warranted California Youth Authority confinement, but that he had imposed a lesser punishment in the interest of rehabilitating the boy, who was 14 at the time of the shooting.
"I just hope the two families can be healed," Ron Simmons said. "We have not lost as much as Nick's family, but we have a loss too."