AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million — significantly less than the $150 million sought — in compensatory damages to the parents of a boy from 6-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, marking the first time the Infowars host has been held financially responsible for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in US history was a hoax.
The Austin jury has yet to decide how much the Infowars Host should pay punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewiswhose son Jesse Lewis was among 20 children and six educators who were killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.
The parents had sought at least $150 million in compensation for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jones’ lawyer asked the jury to limit damages to $8 — one dollar for each of the compensation costs they were considering — and Jones himself said any compensation over $2 million would “sink us.”
This is unlikely to be the final judgment against Jones – who was not in the courtroom – for his claims that the attack was staged to increase gun control. A Connecticut judge ruled against him in a similar lawsuit brought 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, gave his co-lawyer a wink before leaving the courtroom. He declined to comment on the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston insisted the $4.11 million was no disappointment, noting it was just part of the damages that Jones will have to pay.
The jury returns Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company’s finances.
In a video posted to his website Thursday night, Jones called the cut price a major win.
“I admitted I was wrong. I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted I followed the misinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury got it. What I did to those families was wrong, but I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.
The prize was “more money than my company and I personally have, but we’re going to work to try to give that back,” Jones said.
Bankston suggested any declaration of victory might be premature.
“We haven’t finished people,” Bankston said. “We knew that going into this case, it was necessary to aim for the moon so that the jury would understand that we were serious and passionate. The day after tomorrow, they will owe a lot more.
The total amount awarded in this case could be a marker for further lawsuits against Jones and underscores 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 portrayed the trial as a attack on his first amendment rightsacknowledged at trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors an apology would not be enough and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of pain he caused them and the other Sandy Hook families.
The parents testified on Tuesday how they endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: shots fired at a house, online and phone threats and harassment in the street by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fueled by Jones and that his conspiracy theory spread to his followers through his 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 at war or an abused child might feel.
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.
Barry Covert, a First Amendment lawyer from Buffalo, New York, who is not involved in the Jones case, said the $4 million in compensatory damages was lower than he expected considering given evidence and testimony.
“But I don’t think Jones can take that as a win,” he added. “The thing is, $4 million is significant even though we might have thought it would be a bit higher.”
Jurors often refuse to award punitive damages after deciding on an amount of compensation. But when they want to, the punitive amount is often higher, Covert said. He said he expects lawyers for the parents to argue that jurors should send the message that no one should profit from defamation.
“They’ll want jurors to send the message that you can’t make a quarter of a billion dollars hurting someone and say you’re just going to take the damages in court,” Covert said.
Jones was the only witness to testify for his defense, and he only attended the trial sporadically while appearing on his show. And he came under fierce attack from plaintiffs’ attorneys in cross-examination, as they reviewed Jones’ own video claims about Sandy Hook over the years, and accused him of lying and trying to hide evidence including text messages and emails regarding the attack. 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 lawyers had mistakenly sent Bankston the past two years’ text messages from Jones’ cell phone. Bankston said in court Thursday that the Jan. 6 U.S. House committee was investigating the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. has requested the recordings and intends to comply with them.
And shortly after Jones said, “I don’t use email,” Jones showed one from his address, and another from an Infowars sales executive telling Jones that 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’ media company, Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of Infowars, filed for bankruptcy during the two week trial.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.
For more on AP coverage of school shootings: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings