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."
Sullivan testified during the third and final penalty phase for gunman James Holmes who was convicted of murdering 12 people and trying to kill 70 others at the premiere of a Batman movie three years ago.
District Attorney George Brauchler said such testimony reinforces that death is "the only appropriate sentence."
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 included Amanda Medek, who testified that she still can't enter a movie theater. She recalled frantically searching hospitals before officers appeared at her parent's home with a picture of her little sister, Micayla. "All I remember is my knees buckling and slamming into the concrete floor," she said.
Micayla was "filled with love," she said. "Kind, sweet, innocent. She was a kid. She was just about to be a college kid. She was young. She was never in love. She never got to have a family."
Mary Theresa Hoover glared briefly at Holmes as she took the stand, and then recalled how her 18-year-old son, A.J. Boik, had planned to start art school. A.J.'s brother is grieving quietly, she said.
"I am now a single mother of one child," she said. "I have lost half of what I was put on this Earth to do."
Hoover, her surviving son and A.J.'s girlfriend later hugged Brauchler and thanked him for letting her tell their story.
The defense declined to question any of these survivors, and Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., told jurors not to be swayed by the emotional nature of their highly charged testimony. "Your decision must reflect your individual reasoned moral judgment," he repeated.
The same jurors who will decide whether Holmes gets life without parole or a lethal injection already rejected his insanity plea.
Brauchler said their final deliberations may begin as early as Wednesday.
Even one juror's objection to capital punishment will mean life without parole, the judge 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.