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Victims' families testify as prosecutors launch last push for Colorado theater shooter's death

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CENTENNIAL, Colorado — The prosecutor of James Holmes told jurors Tuesday that once they hear from at least 12 more people this week — relatives of each of his murder victims — they will decide that death is the only appropriate sentence for his attack on a Colorado movie theater.

District Attorney George Brauchler said they will hear from "a father, a daughter, an ex-husband, a widow, a sister, a grandfather, a mom."

After weeks of testimony about the crime and about Holmes, he promised the jurors that they will finally "get a glimpse of who those people are who he shot to death."

Holmes's defense lawyer's voice cracked as she insisted the crimes were caused by the psychotic breakdown of a mentally ill young man.

"We will ask that you not answer death with death," Rebekka Higgs said. Each of you will have to live with your decision for the rest of your lives, she added.

Even one juror's objection to capital punishment will mean life without parole for Holmes, Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. said, but any mercy or sympathy for the defendant must be based on the evidence.

On the other hand, "no juror may make a decision for the death penalty unless the juror is convinced without a reasonable doubt that death is the appropriate sentence," the judge said.

After brief opening statements, relatives began taking the stand.

Among them was Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex Sullivan had been celebrating his 27th birthday and first wedding anniversary at the theater.

"He was maybe every father's dream," Sullivan said in a shaky voice. "As a man you want a son and Alex was my son and he was also my best friend."

Alex's murder has left an empty spot at the dinner table, at his sister's wedding, and even in the theater where he was killed, because the family has made a point of seeing movies there, he said.

"We go up and we sit in Alex's row, row 12, and we leave Alex's seat open. We sit next to him," Sullivan said, his voice wavering with emotion.

The defense had no questions for Sullivan or other relatives.

Holmes, now convicted of murdering 12 people and trying to kill 70 more during the 2012 assault at a Batman movie, has seemed emotionless throughout the proceedings, his reactions dulled by anti-psychotic drugs.

Jurors rejected arguments that mental illness and other potential reasons for mercy outweighed factors justifying a lethal injection. But outside experts differed in their predictions of the final sentence.

"They're making the ultimate decision of life or death, quite literally," Denver defense attorney Dan Recht said. "All they need is one holdout ... We are far from over on this."

Former prosecutor Craig Silverman countered that he'd "be very surprised if the verdict was anything other than death."

"This jury is not going to want to disappoint the families of these victims," he predicted.

Holmes had been a promising scholar in a demanding neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado until his life went awry amid the pressures of laboratory work.

He broke up with his first and only girlfriend and dropped out of school while amassing an arsenal of weapons, describing his plans in detail in a secret journal.

He self-diagnosed a litany of mental problems, and wrote that he tried to fix his brain, but failed. Then, he stood before a capacity crowd of more than 400 people, and opened fire.

PHOTO: Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre attack, speak with members of the media on the day of the reading of the verdict in penalty phase 2 of the James Holmes trial at the Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo., Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. Jurors declined to rule out the death penalty Monday as they now move toward sentencing Holmes. The decision clears the way for one last attempt from both sides to sway the jury with gripping testimony from victims about their harm and suffering as well as the defense's appeals to show mercy. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre attack, speak with members of the media on the day of the reading of the verdict in penalty phase 2 of the James Holmes trial at the Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo., Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. Jurors declined to rule out the death penalty Monday as they now move toward sentencing Holmes. The decision clears the way for one last attempt from both sides to sway the jury with gripping testimony from victims about their harm and suffering as well as the defense's appeals to show mercy. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

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PHOTO: Tom Sullivan, front, who lost his son in the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., heads to court to hear the reading in penalty phase 2 in the trial of  James Holmes Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Centennial, Colo. Jurors declined to rule out death for Holmes as they moved toward sentencing the Colorado theater shooter.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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