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Jul 28, 5:23 PM EDT

Father: Colorado theater shooter is an 'excellent kid'

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CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- The father of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes said Tuesday that he didn't know his son suffered from mental illness before he attacked the audience at a Batman movie, killing 12 people three years ago.

Emotions just weren't talked about in his family, Robert Holmes acknowledged after defense lawyers put him on the stand in an effort to persuade jurors to spare his son from the death penalty.

Robert Holmes said he wasn't aware of mental illness in the family until investigators researched it in preparation for this trial.

"I assumed he might be depressed," he said.

But he said he never knew that his son had homicidal or suicidal thoughts after the events that precipitated his theater attack: a breakup with a girlfriend and his withdrawal from a prestigious graduate program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

Robert and Arlene Holmes have attended every day of their son's 12-week trial, but the couple had not spoken publicly since their request for a pre-trial plea-deal to spare his life was denied.

Holmes said he supports his son, an "excellent kid," and still loves him. "He's my son and we always got along very well."

While jurors found Holmes to be legally sane and eligible for the death penalty, his defense is trying to show that mental illness reduced his moral culpability, so much so that capital punishment would not due justice.

Death sentences must be unanimous, and the judge has explained to jurors that their decision will be highly personal.

So the defense has a two-fold task during this phase of Holmes' sentencing: They must persuade at least one juror that Holmes was deeply mentally ill, even if legally sane; and they must show he deserves mercy.

On the first point, the defense brought back the same court-appointed psychiatrist who found Holmes was legally sane during the attack, this time to say that it was severe mental illness that drove Holmes to kill.

"Having psychosis doesn't take away your capacity to make choices. It may increase your capacity to make bad choices," Dr. Jeffrey Metzner testified Monday. "He acted on his delusions, and that's a reflection of the severity of his mental illness."

On the second, they showed images of him as a baby and a young boy, and introduced friends and family to show that even this killer was a good person once. Family videos of him playing with neighbors and team pictures from afterschool soccer leagues were put on the screen.

Lori Bidwell recalled Tuesday how "Jimmy" helped celebrate Halloween with them each year in California. She said he was quiet, smart and good-humored. The families went rafting together when Holmes was 21, and Bidwell recalled how he laughed and watched sea otters.

"When I first heard it on the news, I called because I thought this can't be possible," said Bidwell said.

Chris Holmes, 22, testified Monday that she realized during a jail visit that he was no longer the older brother who protected her as they were growing up.

"His whole demeanor seemed different," she said. "His eyes, they were almost bugging out of his head."

But she still loves him, she said, and will still visit, and probably send him a birthday card each year in prison. "It will be up to me when my parents pass away, so I do want to do that."

Holmes' lawyers say the once-promising neuroscience student should get life without parole rather than be executed for the 12 murders. He also injured 70 others at the crowded midnight movie in July 2012.

Holmes had no visible reaction to his sister, who sat just feet from the defense table where he has been tethered to the floor.

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