AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — For years, the explosive far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his millions of followers that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, that the children were not killed, and that the parents were crisis actors in an elaborate ruse to force control of the fire arms.
Under oath and facing a jury that could hit him with $150 million or more in damages for misrepresentationJones said Wednesday he now realizes it was irresponsible and believes what happened in the deadliest school shooting in American history was “100% real.”
Jones’ public contrition came on the final day of testimony in a two-week libel lawsuit against him and his Austin-based media company, Free Speech Systems, brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis. Their son was a first grader who was among 20 students and six teachers killed at the school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.
“I unwittingly participated in things that hurt the feelings of these people,” said Jones, who also admitted raising conspiracy allegations regarding other mass tragedies, from Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon from bombings to mass shootings in Vegas and Park, Florida“and I’m sorry about that.”
But apologies aren’t enough for Heslin and Lewis. They said Jones and the media empire he controls and uses to spread his false claims must be held accountable.
“Alex started this fight,” Heslin said, “and I will finish this fight.”
The parents testified on Tuesday about a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: shots fired at a house, threats online and by phone, and harassment in the street by strangers, all fueled by Jones and his conspiracy theory. spread to its followers via its Infowars website.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffered from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what a soldier in war or a victim of child abuse might experience.
At one point in his testimony, Lewis looked directly at Jones, who was sitting barely 10 feet away.
“It seems so unbelievable to me that we have to do this – that we have to beg you, punish you – to stop lying,” Lewis told Jones.
Courts in Texas and Connecticut have already found Jones liable for defamation for his portrayal of the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax involving actors aimed at increasing gun control.
Now, Heslin and Lewis are asking the Austin jury for $150 million in compensation for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They will also ask the jury to assess additional punitive damages.
Jurors began considering damages on Wednesday. Once they determine whether Jones should pay the parents compensation for defamation and emotional distress, he must then decide whether he should also pay punitive damages. This part will involve a separate mini-trial with Jones and economists testifying about his and his company’s net worth.
Jones’ lawyer asked the jury to limit damages to $8 – one dollar for each of the compensation charges considered – and Jones himself said any award over $2 million would “sink us”. .
At the end of Jones’ testimony, Mark Bankston, an attorney for the family, took a crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket, showed it to Jones, and set it down in front of the parents.
“The day Sandy Hook happened, Alex Jones planted a seed of misinformation that lasted a decade,” parents’ attorney Kyle Farrar told the jury in closing argument. “And he just watered that seed over and over until it bore fruit: cruelty and money.”
During his testimony, Jones said he had tried in the past to roll back the hoax allegations, but “they (the media) won’t let me back down.”
Jones – who has been banned from major social media platforms for hate speech and abusive behavior – has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights and complained of being “typed as someone who talks about Sandy Hook, makes money off Sandy Hook, is obsessed with Sandy Hook”.
Eight days of testimony included videos of Jones and Infowars employees talking about the Sandy Hook conspiracy and even mocking Heslin’s description in a 2017 TV interview that he held the body of his dead son Jesse” with a bullet hole in the head”. Heslin described that moment with her dead son to the jury.
Jones was the only witness to testify for his defense. And he came under fierce attack from plaintiffs’ attorneys in cross-examination, as they reviewed Jones’ own video statements about Sandy Hook over the years, and accused him of lying and trying to hide evidence, including text messages and emails about Sandy Hook. It also included internal emails sent by an Infowars employee that said “this Sandy Hook thing is killing us.”
At some point, Jones learned that his attorneys had mistakenly sent Bankston the past two years’ text messages from Jones’ cell phone.
And shortly after Jones said “I don’t use email,” Jones showed one from his address, and another from an Infowars sales manager telling Jones the company had earned $800,000 gross selling his products in a single day, which would amount to nearly $300 million in a year.
Jones has previously attempted to financially protect Free Speech Systems. The company filed for federal bankruptcy protection last week. The Sandy Hook families sued Jones separately for his financial claims, arguing that the company is trying to shield millions belonging to Jones and his family through shell entities.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.
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