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Jury in Colorado theater shooting declines to rule out death penalty as sentencing advances

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CENTENNIAL, Colorado — Jurors on Monday moved one step closer toward sentencing James Holmes to death for his Colorado movie theater attack, taking less than three hours to reject arguments that the former neuroscience student's mental illness means he should not die.

The decision clears the way for one last attempt from both sides to sway the jury, with gripping testimony from victims about their suffering and more appeals for mercy for the man convicted of murdering 12 people and trying to kill 70 more during the 2012 assault at a Batman movie.

Holmes, his reactions dulled by anti-psychotic drugs, stood as ordered and appeared emotionless as Judge Carlos Samour, Jr. read the decisions.

Robert and Arlene Homes held hands, their fingers interlaced, and directed their eyes at the floor. With each unanimous "yes," it became ever more clear that jurors believe their son's crimes outweighed their testimony. She began to cry, and her husband held out a box of tissues.

More tears flowed in the gallery. Rena Medek began silently sobbing when the judge read the name of her 23-year-old daughter Micayla. Ian Sullivan, the father of Holmes' youngest victim, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, closed his eyes when her name was read. Veronica's grandfather, Robert Sullivan, glared at Holmes and nodded his head softly.

"We are one step closer," Joshua Nowlan said outside court, adding that he's "very happy with the results."

Wounded by the gunfire, Nowlan used the cane he now needs to support his legs as a prop during the trial, to show how Holmes sprayed bullets from his assault rifle.

The jury was told to return Tuesday morning for the final phase. Then, the nine women and three men will finally decide whether the 27-year-old Holmes should receive a lethal injection, or spend life in prison without parole.

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed, said prosecutors advised her that she would be testifying on Tuesday.

"I'm a little overwhelmed, but at the same time my job is to share Jessie with the jury, and I will do that to the best of my ability," she said outside the courthouse.

The same jury swiftly rejected Holmes' insanity defense, deciding that he was capable of telling right from wrong when he carried out the theater attack in the Denver suburb of Aurora on July 20, 2012. Their quick decision on Monday raised expectations that they will choose a death sentence after what prosecutors estimate will be two or three more days of testimony from survivors.

But legal experts said there's no way to predict that final decision.

Monday's preliminary verdict was highly technical. They found simply that Holmes' mental problems and the portrait his attorneys painted of a kinder, gentler younger man did not outweigh the horrors of his calculated attack on defenseless moviegoers.

This next stage can be more challenging for each juror, and to choose capital punishment, they must be unanimous, Denver defense attorney Dan Recht said.

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

The defense had argued that mental illness reduced his "moral culpability," and that his personal history made him worthy of mercy. They said it was schizophrenia, not free will, that drove him to murder. They called his former teachers, friends, sister and parents, who said "Jimmy" had been a friendly child who withdrew socially as he grew older.

Robert and Arlene Holmes testified that they never suspected their son was mentally ill. But Robert Holmes acknowledged that they rarely communicated in the months before the theater attack, and that in his family, emotions just weren't talked about, even though his own father and sister had been hospitalized with mental illness.

"He was not a violent person. At least not until the event," Robert Holmes said, referring to the theater attack.

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, abandoning his longtime goal of becoming a scientist. He obtained prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medicine by seeing a campus psychiatrist, but hid the depth of his turmoil from everyone, describing it instead in a secret journal.

That eerie notebook — which Holmes mailed to the psychiatrist hours before opening fire in the theater — became key evidence. In it, Holmes diagnosed himself with a litany of mental problems and methodically laid out his plans to kill. He wrote that he tried to fix his own brain, and failed.

Shortly after midnight, he slipped into the premiere of a Batman movie, stood before the capacity crowd of more than 400 people, threw gas canisters, and then opened fire, with a shotgun, assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol before surrendering meekly to police outside.


Contributors include Associated Press Writer Thomas Peipert in Centennial, Colorado

PHOTO: Josh Nowlan, who was wounded by multiple gunshots in the 2012 Aurora movie theater attack, walks away after speaking with members of the media following 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 James 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)
Josh Nowlan, who was wounded by multiple gunshots in the 2012 Aurora movie theater attack, walks away after speaking with members of the media following 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 James 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 Gallery:
PHOTO: In this image made from Colorado Judicial Department video, James Holmes, second from left in blue shirt, stands with his defense team as Judge Carlos A. Samour, Jr., reads the jury's sentencing verdict in the Colorado theater shooting trial in Centennial, Colo., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.  (Colorado Judicial Department via AP)
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