The jury in Alex Jones’s defamation trial on Thursday ordered the far-right conspiracy theorist to pay $4.1m in damages over his repeated claims that the deadly Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.
Jurors in Austin, Texas, gave their verdict after deliberating about one hour Wednesday and seven hours Thursday at the end of a nine-days-long trial which saw Jones apologize and concede that the 2012 massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was “100% real”. The verdict levied against Jones was far below the $150m – minimum – that the plaintiffs had requested they be awarded by jurors.
The decision marked the culmination of a case set in motion by the parents of Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old boy killed during the mass shooting. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis sued Jones for defamation and inflicting emotional stress, and Jones lost by default because he failed to provide any documents in response to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.
That set up a trial whose sole purpose was to determine how much money Jones owed Jesse Lewis’ parents in compensation.
In a separate phase, jurors are to determine whether Jones owes any so-called punitive damages in addition to the penalty doled out Thursday.
Heslin and Scarlett Lewis took the witness stand during the trial and detailed the mental suffering, death threats and harassment they weathered from fringe conservatives after Jones went on the rightwing conspiratorial outlet Infowars and his other media platforms to trumpet lies that the 20 children and six adults murdered in the 2012 Connecticut school massacre never actually died.
Instead, Jones claimed for years, the victims and their loved ones were “crisis actors” carrying out an elaborate ruse to force gun control.
They said they would need much more than an apology to be made whole and pleaded for jurors to hold Jones to account after they argued that he made it impossible for the couple to heal from their child’s killing.
Jones’ falsehoods about the Sandy Hook murders form part of a larger body of misinformation and theories for which he has had to apologize – including his touting of the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy that falsely claimed a Washington DC pizzeria was home to a child sex-abuse ring. That myth, consumed by Jones’ millions of followers, prompted a man to go there with a high-powered rifle and fire shots inside.
Prior to the trial, Jones sought to financially shield his media company, Free Speech Systems, which houses Infowars. Free Speech Systems recently filed for federal bankruptcy protection, prompting Sandy Hook families to file a separate lawsuit alleging that the company is using shell entities to protect Jones’s and his family’s millions.
Jones’s attorney, Andino Reynal, tried to persuade jurors that it was unreasonable for them to expect that his client could foresee the abuse that Heslin and Scarlett Lewis would ultimately endure.
Reynal asked jurors to limit his client’s damages to a single dollar, despite evidence during the trial that Infowars earned more than $800,000 daily some days. Jones, meanwhile, portrayed the case as an assault on the free speech rights guaranteed to him under the US constitution’s first amendment.
Nonetheless, in an exchange with Reynal while on the witness stand, Jones acknowledged his positions on the Sandy Hook killings were reckless lies.
“I’ve met the parents,” Jones said during the trial. “It’s 100% real.”
For their part, the plaintiffs’ legal team subjected Jones to a withering cross-examination. In one of the trial’s most memorable episodes, the plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston revealed to Jones that his legal team had “messed up” and provided “every text message” Jones had written in the past two years.
Those messages included texts that contradicted claims Jones had made under oath in a prior deposition that he had nothing on his phone pertaining to the Sandy Hook massacre. Bankston said he notified Jones’ attorneys of the apparent error, but the defense never took steps to label the communications as “privileged,” which could’ve kept them out of court.
Jones grumbled that Bankston had gotten his “Perry Mason moment” at his expense, alluding to the TV attorney who would win his cases by getting those he was questioning to confess to wrongdoing on the witness stand. Bankston punctuated the back-and-forth in front of the presiding judge, Maya Guerra Gamble, by asking Jones if he knew the definition of perjury – the crime of lying under oath.
Jones did, he said, but he maintained that he never tried to hide anything on his phone, which explained how his attorneys had anything to send over inadvertently in the first place.
Bankston on Thursday said the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol had requested that he provide the panel with the texts from Jones, a prominent supporter of former president Donald Trump.
A pro-Trump mob carried out the Capitol attack, and the panel apparently wants to see what communications the ousted president’s team may have had with Jones.
Bankston said he intended to comply with the request unless a judge ordered he do otherwise.
A similar trial to the one in Austin looms for Jones in Connecticut. Other Sandy Hook parents are pursuing that case, which they won by default last year after Jones refused to produce any documents they demanded.