A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a six-year-old boy who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the first time the Infowars host has been held financially accountable for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in US history was a hoax.
An Austin jury has yet to decide how much the Infowars host must pay in punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 bombing in Newtown, Connecticut.
The parents had sought at least $150 million in damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jones’ attorney asked the jury to cap the damages at $8, one dollar for each of the compensatory charges they are considering. Jones himself said that any prize over US$2 million would “sink us”.
It will likely not be the last trial against Jones, who was not in the courtroom, over his claims that the attack was carried out in the interest of increased gun controls. A Connecticut judge has ruled against him in a similar lawsuit filed by the families of other victims and an FBI agent who worked on the case. He also faces another trial in Austin.
Jones’ lead attorney, Andino Reynal, winked at his co-counsel before leaving the courtroom. He declined to comment on the verdict.
Outside court on Thursday, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, insisted that the US$4.11 million figure was not a disappointment, noting that it was only part of the damages Jones will have to pay .
Mark Bankston, attorney for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, speaks to the media in Austin on Thursday. (Briana Sanchez/Reuters)
The jury returns Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company’s finances.
“We’re not done folks,” Bankston said. “We knew going into this case it was necessary to shoot for the moon to understand that we were serious and passionate. After tomorrow, he owes a lot more.”
The full amount awarded in this case could set a benchmark for other lawsuits against Jones, underscoring the financial threat he faces. It also raises new questions about the ability of Infowars, which has been banned from YouTube, Spotify and Twitter for hate speech, to continue operating, although the company’s finances remain unclear.
Jones, who has described the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, admitted during the trial that the attack was “100 percent real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology would not be enough and asked them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.
The parents testified Tuesday about how they have endured a decade of trauma, first inflicted by their son’s slaying and what followed: gunshots at home, online and phone threats and street harassment by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were fueled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers through his Infowars website.
Scarlett Lewis, left, and Neil Heslin, parents of a six-year-old Sandy Hook victim, testified against Jones on Tuesday. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” caused by ongoing trauma, similar to what a soldier at war or a victim of child abuse might experience.
At one point in his testimony, Lewis looked directly at Jones, who was sitting about ten feet away.
“It seems so unbelievable to me that we have to do this, that we have to beg you, to punish you, to get you to stop lying,” Lewis told Jones.
A photo of Jesse Lewis, a Sandy Hook shooting victim, is displayed at the Travis County Courthouse on Tuesday. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/AP)
Barry Covert, a First Amendment attorney in Buffalo, N.Y., who is not involved in the Jones case, said the $4 million in compensatory damages was less than he would have expected given the evidence and testimony.
“But I don’t think Jones can take this as a victory,” he added. “The fact is, $4 million is significant even if we would have thought it would be a little bit higher.”
Juries often refuse to award any punitive damages after deciding on a compensation figure. But when they do decide to, the punitive amount is often higher, Covert said. He said he expects the parents’ lawyers to argue that juries should send the message that no one should profit from defamation.
“They’re going to want juries to send the message that you can’t make a quarter of a billion in profit by hurting someone and say you’re only going to take the loss for damages in court,” Covert said.
Jones was the only witness to testify in his defense, and he only attended the trial sporadically while still appearing on his show. And he was roundly attacked by plaintiffs’ lawyers under cross-examination as they reviewed Jones’ own Sandy Hook video claims over the years and accused him of lying and trying to hide evidence, including text messages and emails about the attack. It also included internal emails sent by an Infowars employee saying “this Sandy Hook stuff is killing us.”
At one point, Jones was told his attorneys had mistakenly sent Bankston, who represents Heslin and Lewis, the past two years of text messages from Jones’ cellphone. Bankston told the court Thursday that the Jan. 6 U.S. House committee investigating the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has requested the records and that he intends to comply.
And shortly after Jones declared “I don’t use email,” Jones was shown one from his address, and another from an Infowars business officer who told Jones that the company had grossed $800,000 selling their products in a single day. , which would amount to almost US$300 million annually.
Jones’ media company Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of Infowars, filed for bankruptcy during the two-week trial.