AUSTIN, Texas – A grand jury in Texas on Thursday awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School more than $4 million in damages from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the first time he has taken financial responsibility for it. Defaming the victims’ parents by spreading lies that they were complicit in a government shooting plot as a pretext for gun control.
The decision was the first in a series of potential awards against Mr. Jones. On Friday, the jury will consider evidence of Jones’ net worth to determine the amount, if any, of punitive damages to the parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin.
Two more trials by Sandy Hook’s parents for damages from Mr Jones are scheduled for next month, although they may be delayed because his company filed for bankruptcy last week.
Mr. Jones has increasingly become a symbol of how misinformation and false narratives are gaining traction in American society. He’s played a role in propagating some of the most malicious conspiracy theories in recent history, such as Pizzagate – where an Infowars video helped inspire a gunman to attack a Washington, D.C. pizzeria – as well as myths about the coronavirus and “stop theft” lies about election fraud prior to the Capitol attack in Washington, D.C. January 6, 2021.
The verdict came after several days of emotional testimony, including 90 minutes on Tuesday when Ms Lewis personally addressed Jones, asking him why he was knowingly spreading lies about the death of her child, Jesse, 6, who died along with 19 other people. Class students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Jesse was a real boy. I am a real mother,” Mrs. Lewis told Mr. Jones. Later she warned him, “Alex, I want you to hear this. We are more polarized than ever as a country. Some of this is because of you.”
But the most explosive revelation came on Wednesday, when the family’s attorney, Mark Bankston, revealed that Jones’s legal team had mistakenly sent him the entire contents of Jones’ mobile phone, including text messages condemning at least two years that are now receiving attention. The House Committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. The commission is examining Mr. Jones’ role in planning the events surrounding the rebellion, and Mr. Bankston is now seeking the judge’s approval to turn over text records to the plaintiffs and the January 6 commission.
Ms. Lewis and Mr. Heslin have sought $150 million in damages, and Mr. Bankston said he is optimistic about what the jury will award on Friday. “You can probably imagine that if the jury were to pass a judgment of more than $4 million to these plaintiffs in compensatory damages, I think the penalty would likely be in that range or higher,” Mr. Bankston said. “I think it is quite expected that we will see a more than nine-figure verdict against Mr Jones.”
He added, “It’s been a long ride, and it’s really nice to be able to turn around and look at my clients, and say ‘He can’t get out of this. He can’t. You had a defendant who went into the courtroom and said, “I think I should pay them a dollar.” This jury said no. “
Mr. Jones said in his bankruptcy filing that he has paid $15 million so far in legal costs to Sandy Hook’s lawsuit. Citing damages requested by Mrs. Lewis and Mr. Heslin, Mr. Jones called the award a “huge victory” in a video posted on Infowars Thursday night, even as he urged viewers to buy products from his website to stave off what he portrayed as financial ruin.
“I admitted I was wrong,” he said. “I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted I followed up on misinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury understood that.”
Mr. Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits by default last year after repeatedly failing to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. Those rulings paved the way for a trial this summer.
More important than money, Sandy Hook families said, is society’s judgment of a culture in which viral misinformation harms lives and undermines reputations.
“Talk is free, but you have to pay for the lies,” Bankston told the jury last week. “This is an issue of bringing about change.”
At the center of the trial was the June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” that featured a glimpse of Mr. Jones. In the broadcast, Mr. Hesselin protested Mr. Jones’ denial of the shooting. He recalls his last moments with Jesse, saying, “I carried my son with a bullet hole in his head.”
Then, Mr. Jones and Owen Schroer, the host of Infowars, broadcast shows implying that Mr. Hesselin had lied.
“Will there be clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Mr. Shroyer said on Infowars. “I won’t hold your breath.”
During the trial, Mr. Jones’ attorney, F. Andino Raynal, Mr. Jones was essentially running his defense. After much uncertainty about whether the plot announcer would testify, he was adamant that he would appear as the only witness in his defense.
Mr. Heslin and Mrs. Lewis have published a variety of experts. The trial began with the testimony of Dan Joyce, the retired Connecticut State Police investigator who led the Sandy Hook case; a forensic psychiatrist and psychiatrist treated Mr. Hesselin and Mrs. Lewis; and several Infowars employees, whose questionable statements have allowed the family’s lawyer to provide damaging evidence to Mr Jones, including a televised version of the full interview with Ms Kelly, in which Mr Jones made sensational false allegations.
Jones’ audience and corresponding revenue have risen sharply, to more than $50 million annually, in the decade since Sandy Hook.
His defense of the Second Amendment after the mass shooting sparked the interest of major news organizations. But it was Mr Jones’ alliance with former President Donald J. Trump, which appeared on Infowars in December 2015, that moved him from the fringes of the far right to the center of Republican Party populism.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Trump have long echoed the same incendiary false allegations, including the racist lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States; and that Muslims in the New York area “celebrated” the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. and the 2020 election lies that brought violence to the Capitol last year.