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Father of Colorado shooting victim returns to theater, saves seat for murdered son

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CENTENNIAL, Colorado — Jurors struggled to hold back tears Tuesday as a grieving father described how he returns now and then to the Colorado theater where his son was murdered.

Tom Sullivan's voice wavered as he described how his family looks for the very spot where his son Alex was killed while celebrating his 27th birthday and first wedding anniversary.

"We go up and we sit in Alex's row, and we're sitting in row 12, and we leave seat 12 open for Alex," Sullivan said. "We sit next to him."

District Attorney George Brauchler said such testimony reinforces that death is "the only appropriate sentence" for murdering 12 people and trying to kill 70 others at the premiere of a Batman movie three years ago.

Defense attorney Rebekka Higgs' voice cracked as she insisted that the crimes were caused by the psychotic breakdown of a mentally ill young man. She said life without parole is the morally appropriate response, and warned the jurors that "each of you will have to live with your decision for the rest of your lives."

"We will ask that you not answer death with death," Higgs said.

Tom Sullivan had shared his grief in public before, three years ago, when he begged a group of reporters for help as he frantically tried to find his son in the aftermath of the attack. A news photo captured his trauma, becoming one of the searing images many remember from that day.

"I said, I can't find him, I said, I don't know where he is, I said, can you please help me.... It's his birthday, for God's sakes," Sullivan recalled on the witness stand. One juror dabbed her eyes and another squinted hard, fighting back tears.

Other survivors testifying included the ex-husband of Rebecca Wingo, whose murder robbed two young girls of their mother's fearless and intelligent guidance, he said.

"That's not a model that they have on a day to day basis anymore," Robert Wingo said.

The same jurors who will decide whether Holmes gets life without parole or a lethal injection already rejected his insanity plea.

They also concluded that the crimes were heinous enough to warrant death, and that his mental illness and other mitigating factors don't outweigh the horrors of what he did.

Brauchler said their deliberations may begin as early as Wednesday.

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

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 and describing his plans for mass murder 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: Josh Nowlan, who was wounded in the 2012 movie theater shooting at Aurora, Colo., heads to court to hear the reading in penalty phase 2 in the trial of shooter 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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