By Keith Coffman
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - Tom Sullivan of Aurora, Colorado, said his murdered son Alex was his best friend and "every father's dream," and told jurors on Tuesday he often returns to the movie theater and sits next to the empty seat where Alex was killed in the 2012 massacre.
Alex was celebrating his 27th birthday with friends at a midnight screening of a Batman film at a cinema in the Denver suburb. Twelve people died in the July 2012 attack by James Holmes, and 70 were wounded.
"He was every father's dream ... I took him everywhere," Sullivan said of his son, his voice shaking with emotion.
The retired postal worker said he and Alex, who worked as a bartender and was known as "Sully" to his pals, often attended concerts and college basketball and football games together. After Alex turned 21, he joined his dad for gambling trips to Las Vegas.
Prosecutor Rich Orman asked Sullivan if the family had returned to the Century 16 multiplex since Holmes' rampage, and if they did anything there to commemorate Alex.
"Yes," Sullivan replied, saying they made sure they saw shows playing in the theater where the shooting took place.
"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, and ... we sit next to him," he told the court, his voice breaking again.
Several victims sitting in the public gallery wiped away tears as Sullivan spoke, and some hugged him when he came down from the witness stand.
The jury is hearing from victims after finding on Monday that mitigating factors in the case do not outweigh aggravating ones. This decision makes the death penalty an option.
They will then deliberate again on whether Holmes should be executed by lethal injection. If they are not unanimous on the death penalty, he will serve life with no chance of parole.
After hearing hundreds of witnesses during a trial that began in late April, lead prosecutor George Brauchler said the jurors will now learn more about a handful of Holmes' victims, and get "just the faintest whiffs of the impact on those that are left behind.
"This is done so that you can have a complete picture," Brauchler said. "And when this phase is over, probably tomorrow, you can go back, factor this in ... and come back and render the only appropriate sentence in this case, and that is death."
Defense attorney Rebekka Higgs said the panel would have to live with their decision for the rest of their lives.
Were they convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, Higgs asked, that death was the appropriate sentence for someone who suffered a "psychotic break" that led to the deaths?
"Or is life without the possibility of parole for this young man, who has an illness that he didn't ask for, an illness that he struggled to fix, is life in a prison cell without ever being released a sufficient punishment? And we say yes."
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Additional reporting and writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by David Gregorio)