After already ordering him to pay $4.1m to the parents of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, the jury hearing the defamation case against far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones over his falsehoods about the massacre told him to surrender another $45.2m to the grieving family who sued him.
The combined amount of $49.3m is hefty but still below the $150m Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis – the mother and father of slain six-year-old Jesse Lewis – had demanded over Jones’s repeated lies that the Sandy Hook elementary school murders in Newtown, Connecticut, were an elaborate ruse carried out by “crisis actors” hellbent on forcing gun control reform.
Legal wrangling that is standard after these types of cases – including a promised appeal – means the amount Jones ultimately pays may be far below $49.3m. But the ruling nonetheless represents a victory for loved ones of Sandy Hook victims and a major rebuke for one of the country’s most notorious conspiracy theorists.
Scarlett Lewis on Friday recounted her son’s courage during the massacre, dying while warning his schoolmates to run as the shooter paused to reload.
“I hope that I did that incredible courage justice when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is … a bully,” the grieving mother said after court Friday, according to the Associated Press. “I hope that inspires other people to do the same.”
Jones had trumpeted the lies on his rightwing conspiratorial outlet Infowars as well as other media platforms.
The jury’s award Thursday was to compensate Heslin and Lewis for Jones’s actions. Friday’s award – doled out after about four hours of deliberations – was meant to punish Jones for conduct the jurors, through their unanimous decision, found to be egregious.
Before the verdict’s reading, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Wes Ball, asked the jury to send a “very, very simple message”.
“And that is stop Alex Jones, stop the monetization of misinformation and lies,” an impassioned Ball said. “Please.”
Jones’s attorney, Federico Andino Reynal, sought to persuade jurors that they had “already sent a message” to personalities like Jones on Thursday.
“Four million dollars is a lot,” Reynal said, adding he estimated that amounted to tens of thousands of dollars per hour that Jones spent on Sandy Hook coverage.
During a two-week trial that began on 25 July, Heslin and Lewis testified that Jones’s followers harassed them for years over the lie that they had lied about their son’s death as well as the killings of 19 other students and six staffers at Sandy Hook.
Saying he made healing after their son’s murder impossible, the pair sued Jones for defaming them and intentionally inflicting emotional distress on them. They won a judgment in their favor by default after Jones failed to provide documents in response to their lawsuit, setting up the trial that began last week whose sole purpose was to determine how much Jones owed.
Jones, for his part, tried to distance himself from the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories he touted, saying he was sorry if he hurt the plaintiffs’ feelings while conceding that the massacre was “100% real”.
Reynal told jurors during the trial that Jones and his Infowars website had reported “irresponsibly” on Sandy Hook, but he maintained that his client could not be held responsible for his followers’ actions.
Friday began with testimony from a financial expert who estimated that Jones and his media company Free Speech Systems enjoyed a combined worth of between $135m and $270m. Bernard Pettingill added that Jones and his company earned more than $50m annually between 2016 and 2021 due to his “rabid following” which persisted even as he was banned from promoting himself on popular social media platforms.
According to Pettingill, those estimations were made complicated by the fact that Jones used a web of shell companies that own nothing and employ no one to shuttle his money around. He also reported loans totaling more than $50m whose purpose appeared to be to make it look as though his worth is lower, and he failed to provide financial records that Pettingill needed for a more exact assessment.
Jones had been bracing for Friday. Free Speech Systems requested federal bankruptcy protection last week, a filing that Jones has claimed would help the company stay on the air while it appeals against the outcome of the case in the Austin, Texas, courtroom of Judge Maya Guerra Gamble.
Jones’ appeal would aim to drastically reduce the jury’s award against him – if not eliminate it altogether. Reynal on Friday had argued that $270,000 in punitive damages was fair, relying on a state law capping such damages a significant amount below what the jury awarded.
The Austin-based Free Speech Systems’ recent bankruptcy petition paused a similar but larger defamation suit in Connecticut being pursued by numerous Sandy Hook families who have also already won the merits of their case by default because of Jones’s unresponsiveness. Jones also faces another case in Texas brought by other parents.
Furthermore, as a result of one of the most memorable episodes in the trial heard by Guerra Gamble, Jones could face perjury charges. Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Bankston, revealed to Jones on Wednesday that the conspiracy theorist’s legal team had inadvertently provided text messages he had written dating back to 2019, including ones that apparently contradicted claims under oath that he had nothing on his phone pertaining to the Sandy Hook murders.
Jones’s team knew of the accidental leak but didn’t take steps to keep the communications out of court, Bankston added. The congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol have since asked Bankston to turn over those texts, having been in the possession of one of former president Donald Trump’s most prominent supporters.
A mob of Trump sycophants, including white supremacist groups, carried out the Capitol attack. And the committee wants to see what the ousted president’s team may have had with Jones before the pro-Trump mob tried to disrupt the certification of his defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
Unless a judge ordered him to do otherwise, Bankston said he intended to comply with the committee’s request.
The baseless Sandy Hook conspiracy is far from the only theory of that kind which Jones has propagated on Infowars, which is often derided in some quarters for selling pills marketed as helping men achieve firmer erections.
He also lied about a Washington DC pizzeria being the home to a child sex-abuse ring, inspiring a man to go there and fire a high-powered rifle inside. Another centered on a myth that a yogurt factory supported child rapists who spread tuberculosis.
Jones was forced to apologize for both of those. He did not appear to be in the courtroom for the reading of Friday’s verdict.
Meanwhile, since her son’s murder, Scarlett Lewis has started the Choose Love foundation, whose mission is to promote social and emotional education as well as general compassion in schools. The foundation’s name honors a message that Jesse left on a kitchen chalkboard shortly before he was killed.