AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas jury on Friday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, adding to the $4.1 million he must pay for the suffering he put them through by claiming for years that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax.
The total — $49.3 million — is less than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut. Jones was first to be held financially responsible after he lied about the massacre and claimed it was fabricated by the government in order to strengthen gun laws.
Afterward, Lewis said that Jones — who wasn’t in the courtroom to hear the verdict — has been held accountable. She said when she took the stand and looked Jones in the eye, she thought of her son, who was credited with saving lives by yelling “run” when the killer paused in his rampage.
“He stood up to the bully Adam Lanza and saved nine of his classmates’ lives,” Lewis said. “I hope that I did that incredible courage justice when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is also a bully. I hope that inspires other people to do the same.”
The plaintiffs could not collect any money for quite some time. Jones’ lead attorney, Andino Reynal, told the judge he will appeal and ask the courts to drastically reduce the size of the verdict.
Reynal stated that he believes the punitive amount could be reduced as low as $1.5million after the hearing.
’We think the verdict was too high. … Alex Jones will be on the air today, he’ll be on the air tomorrow, he’ll be on the air next week. He’s going to keep doing his job holding the power structure accountable.”
Jones’ companies and personal wealth could also get carved up by other lawsuits and bankruptcy. A Sandy Hook family has filed a defamation suit against Jones. Pretrial hearings are scheduled to commence in Austin’s same courtroom on Sept. 14. Jones is facing another lawsuit for defamation in Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston said he believes he can challenge any attempt to reduce the damages. But he said even if the award is drastically cut, it’s just as important to take the big verdict into the bankruptcy court for the family to claim against Jones’ estate and company.
Jones testified this week that any award over $2 million would “sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars’ Austin-based parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
The purpose of punitive damages is to inflict severe punishment on defendants, and not just to compensate the victims. Jurors can also use a high punitive award to help spread a message to society and discourage others from engaging in similar abominable conduct.
Barry Covert, a Buffalo, New York, First Amendment lawyer with no connection to the Jones case, said the total damages awarded amount to “a stunning loss for Jones.”
“With $50 million in all, the jury has sent a huge, loud message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Covert said. “Everyone with a show like this who knowingly tells lies — juries will not tolerate it.”
Covert indicated that jurors who are presently involved in Sandy Hook cases could look at the amount of damages in this case to set a precedent. If other juries do, Covert said, “it could very well put Jones out of business.”
The family’s attorneys had asked jurors not to impose a severe financial penalty that would make Infowars shut down.
“You have the ability to stop this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury Friday. “Send the message to those who desire to do the same: Speech is free. Lies, you pay for.”
Jones and his company were valued at up to $270million according to an economist.
Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to study Jones’ net worth, said records show that Jones withdrew $62 million for himself in 2021, when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, a value of a net worth,” Pettingill said. “He’s got money put in a bank account somewhere.”
But Jones’ lawyers said their client had already learned his lesson. They advocated for a punishment of no more than $300,000.
“You’ve already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care has to change,” Reynal said.
Friday’s damages drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented the teachers at Sandy Hook.
“Nothing will ever fix the pain of losing a child, or of watching that tragedy denied for political reasons. But I’m glad the parents of Sandy Hook have gotten some justice,” union President Randi Weingarten said in a tweet.
Jones is being sued by lawyers for Sandy Hook families. They claim Jones tried to conceal evidence of his wealth through various shell companies.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business managers outlining a single day’s gross revenue of $800,000 from selling vitamin supplements and other products through his website, which would approach nearly $300 million in a year. Jones called it record day.
Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology wouldn’t suffice and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.
The parents told jurors they’ve endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gunshots fired at a home, online and phone threats, and harassment on the street by strangers. Jones’ conspiracy theory was spreading via Infowars to his supporters, they claimed that the harassment and threats were all fuelled by Jones.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what might be experienced by a soldier at war or a child abuse victim.
Jones spoke out about conspiracy theories on the witness stands and during news conference impromptu. His erratic behavior is unusual by courtroom standards, and the judge scolded him, telling him at one point: “This is not your show.”
Austin was also interested in the trial.
Bankston told the court Thursday that the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has requested records from Jones’ phone that Jones’ attorneys had mistakenly turned over to the plaintiffs. Bankston later said he planned to comply with the committee’s request.
By Friday, Bankston said, he had “a subpoena sitting on my desk’ from the Jan. 6 committee. But he said he needed to “tamp down expectations” that it might reveal texts about the insurrection since it appears to have been scraped for data in mid-2020.
Bankston said he’s also had “law enforcement” interest in the phone data, but he declined to elaborate.
The House committee displayed graphic, violent text messages, as well as videos of right-wing figures such Jones.
Jones was first subpoenaed in November by the committee, seeking a deposition as well documents regarding his attempts to spread misinformation concerning the 2020 elections and to organize a protest on the same day.
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