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Family: Show mercy to prof in Colorado shooting joke

The family of a man killed in the Colorado movie theater shootings personally appealed to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy superintendent Tuesday, urging him not to fire a professor for making a joke about the violence in a class that included her son.

"It was a dumb mistake," Melisa Cowden told Newsday in an interview. "I've made plenty of dumb mistakes in my life. This professor has suffered enough."

The professor, Gregory F. Sullivan, has been placed on paid administrative leave during the academy's investigation.

Melisa Cowden's former husband, Gordon Cowden, 51, was killed in the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, their Colorado hometown. She and their children, including son Weston, 20, a student at the academy, all agreed that Sullivan was apologetic and his firing would only add to their pain.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency cannot comment on what led to the professor being put on leave. Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

Melisa Cowden said she spoke with Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy's superintendent, for about 20 minutes Tuesday and made her family's opinion "pretty clear."

"He listened to me, allowed me to express my thoughts and was very gracious," Cowden said.

Helis told her the school would contact her once a decision has been made regarding the professor's future, she said.

Weston Cowden returned to school after his father's funeral and was in the classroom when Sullivan, about to show a documentary, reportedly said, "If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit."

James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others in the rampage, had dyed his hair orange before the attack.

Melisa Cowden said she has not spoken with Sullivan, but that the professor was made aware after class that her son was in the room at the time of the remark. "He went after my son immediately and apologized," Melisa Cowden said. "He was sorry and said the right things."

The academy has been supportive of her family during the tragedy, she said, sending 12 students to the funeral. The students, many of them her son's friends, helped arrange food for the funeral and provided moral support. "At age 20, and at a time like that, to have support from his friends and classmates, that was really good for him," Melisa Cowden said. "There's been enough suffering."

With Joie Tyrrell and AP

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