The Washington Post
$4.1 million ruling for Sandy Hook parents
Infowars founder Alex Jones must pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting, an Austin jury announced Thursday, after the right-wing conspiracy theorist’s false claims that the deadliest elementary school shooting in U.S. history was a “giant hoax” created a “living hell” for the family.
The decision means Jones, the country’s foremost purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories, could pay less than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of 6year-old Jesse Lewis, for remarks nearly a decade ago after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people, 20 of them young children.
But it remains to be seen how
much Jones, 48, might be ordered to pay in punitive damages. The jury is expected to return Friday to weigh that amount — a sum that could be considerably higher. While the damages awarded to Jesse’s parents Thursday acknowledge the suffering they endured, punitive damages can be levied to punish a defendant and prevent future abuse.
“Punitive damages are the opportunity for the jurors to send a message,” said trial consultant Jill Huntley Taylor, who was not involved in the case.
Shortly after the 2012 shooting, Jones falsely claimed that “no one died” at Sandy Hook and that the attack was “staged” and “manufactured” by gun-control advocates. The remarks not only outraged grieving parents but led to death threats and abuse from strangers. Heslin told the jury on Tuesday that Jones’s false claims had made his life a “living hell.”
“Neil and Scarlett are thrilled with the result and look forward to putting Mr. Jones’s money to good use,” said Mark Bankston, a lawyer for the parents. “With punitive damages still to be decided and multiple additional defamation lawsuits pending, it is clear that Mr. Jones’s time on the American stage is finally coming to an end.”
Thursday’s decision could hint at what financial repercussions Jones could face in other courts in the coming months. He was previously found by judges in Connecticut and Texas to be liable for damages in lawsuits stemming from his false claims that the shooting was a “false flag” operation carried out by “crisis actors.” Two other cases to determine damages are ongoing.
The man once described by Roger Stone as maybe “the single most important voice in the alternative conservative media” has faced considerable fallout from the false statements. Though he eventually retracted his false claims on the shooting, Jones has been banned from major platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Spotify. The parent company for his Infowars website filed for bankruptcy during the trial.
Jones’s lawyers have said the legal battle against him is an assault on the First Amendment. But the parents’ legal team argued that his rhetoric was defamation, which isn’t protected speech. The defense asked the jury to award the plaintiffs $1 for each claim after contending Jones lost millions of dollars and followers when he was booted from social media platforms.
In a video released after the decision, Jones called the verdict a “victory,” noting that the total Jesse’s parents received in compensatory damages was considerably less than they had demanded.
“That’s more money than I or my company personally have, but we are going to work on trying to make restitution there,” he said.
The jury’s decision comes one day after it was revealed in court that the legal team representing Jones inadvertently sent the contents of his cellphone to a lawyer representing the parents. The apparent blunder led attorney Bankston to accuse Jones of lying under oath when he testified that he did not have any text messages related to the Sandy Hook massacre.
During the jury’s deliberations, Jones’s lawyers requested a mistrial and demanded that Bankston delete the phone data they had handed over, which the judge denied.
Jones has seen his false claims and rants launched into the mainstream national dialogue in recent years, embraced by the likes of then-president Donald Trump and Joe Rogan, the popular podcast host. He has been previously ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to families who have sued him. Nine families have sued him over the years.
In default judgments against Jones and Infowars in October, District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of Travis County, Tex., ruled that Jones did not comply with court orders to give information in a pair of 2018 lawsuits brought against him by the families of two children killed in the massacre. Jones repeatedly failed to hand over documents and evidence to the court supporting his damaging and erroneous claims.
The 2018 lawsuits were filed by the parents of Jesse Lewis as well as Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, who lost their 6-yearold son, Noah. Pozner and De La Rosa said they have faced emotional distress and have been harassed for years by Infowars fans who have followed Jones’s lead and falsely claimed that the shooting was staged.
During her testimony, Scarlett Lewis spoke of her grief and lambasted Jones.
“My son existed,” she said. “There’s records of Jesse’s birth.”
Lewis stressed that she was not part of any “deep state” conspiracy theory.
“I know you know that. That’s the problem . . . and you keep saying it, why? For money?” she said. Lewis added: “It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you . . . to get you to stop lying.”
But perhaps the most dramatic moment in the contentious trial came Wednesday, when Bankston told Jones how his attorneys had “messed up and sent me an entire digital copy of your entire cellphone” containing previously undisclosed texts about the massacre and financial information about Infowars.
“This is your Perry Mason moment,” Jones responded to Bankston, a reference to the fictional lawyer famed for his stunning 11th-hour courtroom reveals. “I gave them my phone.”
After Bankston noted that Jones had testified under oath that he personally searched his cellphone for Sandy Hook text messages and was unable to find any, the attorney asked Jones: “You know what perjury is, right? I just want to make sure you know before we go any further.”
Jones denied lying, saying, “I’m not a tech guy.”
The trial in Austin, where Infowars is headquartered, had been delayed for months after the rightwing website and two other of Jones’s business entities filed for bankruptcy protection in April. At the halfway point of the trial, Reynal noted in court how Free Speech Systems, Jones’s media company, had filed for bankruptcy, highlighting yet another financial blow to the Infowars founder.
Jones has also faced daily fines of $25,000 from a Connecticut judge for not showing up for court-ordered depositions in March, and previously blamed stress and cardiovascular effects from his coronavirus infection for missing depositions in the Connecticut trial last year.
While Jones has claimed in court filings that he has a net worth of negative $20 million, attorneys for the Sandy Hook families have pointed to records showing that Jones’s Infowars store made more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018.On Friday, plaintiffs are expected to call an economist to the witness stand to testify about how much Jones and Free Speech Systems are worth.
Avi Moshenberg, an attorney representing Sandy Hook parents in other cases against the radio host, said the verdict had “invigored” them.
“Today was a strong first step in bringing Alex Jones and Free Speech Systems to justice,” he said. “But we’re not done.”