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Jul 28, 9:34 PM EDT

Holmes' father says he worried when son stopped calling


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CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- The father of Colorado theater gunman James Holmes said he never suspected his son was mentally ill before the 2012 attack, but he and his wife became increasingly concerned about him when he stopped returning their phone calls.

Robert Holmes said the call they did receive was from their son's psychiatrist, about a month before the shooting. She told them James Holmes was dropping out of his prestigious neuroscience graduate school program.

"We didn't know he was seeing a psychiatrist," the father said Tuesday, testifying in an effort to persuade jurors to spare his son's life. After the psychiatrist called, Robert Holmes said he entertained the possibility that his son might have Asperger's syndrome.

He said his wife sought more information from the doctor, who didn't call back.

Robert Holmes said when he and his wife visited their son after his arrest, he "was clearly messed up" - his eyes bulging and his pupils dilated.

"He told us he loved us, but I could see there was something really wrong with him," Robert Holmes said.

Robert Holmes also recalled that during a visit with his son about seven months before the attack, he noticed James Holmes had an "odd facial expression," which he would be reminded of later when he saw his son's mug shot after his arrest.

He said he noticed his son smiling and grimacing in December 2011. Immediately after the testimony, the defense showed the now-familiar mug shot of James Holmes smirking at the camera.

Under questioning by prosecutor George Brauchler, Robert Holmes acknowledged his son didn't share much information with his family about his life in Colorado. He also acknowledged James Holmes had a "distant" relationship with his sister, Chris Holmes, who testified on James Holmes' behalf Monday.

Robert Holmes said he has seen James Holmes in jail only three times because his son typically does not allow visitors.

He said his son was an "excellent kid," and he still loves him.

While Robert Holmes occasionally glanced at his son during his testimony, the two did not acknowledge each other until near the end of the day. Robert Holmes mouthed something at this son, who waved slightly at him. They both smiled.

Photographs and videos from the gunman's childhood brought chuckles to some audience members but not to John Larimer's family. Larimer, a sailor, was shot and killed in the attack while trying to protect his girlfriend, who sat on the victims' side of the gallery.

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

Jurors found Holmes to be legally sane and eligible for the death penalty. But his defense is trying to show 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.

The defense has a twofold 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 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 point, the defense showed images of James Holmes as a baby and a young boy, and introduced friends and family to show that even this killer was a good person once. They displayed family videos of him playing with neighbors and team pictures from afterschool soccer leagues.

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 James 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,'" Bidwell said.

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