AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas jury on Thursday awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School more than $4 million in compensatory damages from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the first time he was held financially responsible for defaming the parents of the victims by spreading lies that they were complicit in a government plot to stage the shooting 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 Mr Jones’ net worth to determine how much, if any, to award the parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, in punitive damages.
Two more trials by Sandy Hook’s parents seeking damages from Mr Jones are scheduled for next month, although they may be delayed because his business filed for bankruptcy Last week.
Mr. Jones has become increasingly emblematic of how misinformation and false narratives have gained ground in American society. He has been instrumental in spreading some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories in recent history, like Pizzagate — in which an Infowars video helped inspire a gunman to attack a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. — as well as coronavirus myths and “Stop the Steal” lies about voter fraud before the Capitol stormed on January 6, 2021.
The verdict came after several days of moving testimony, including 90 minutes on Tuesday when Ms Lewis personally addressed Mr Jones, asking why he had knowingly spread lies about the death of his child, Jesse, 6, who died along with 19 other firsts. students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Jesse was a real boy. And I’m a real mum,’ Ms Lewis told Mr Jones. Later, she warned him, “Alex, I want you to hear this. We are more polarized than ever as a country. It’s partly because of you.
But the most explosive revelation came on Wednesday, when the family’s lawyer, Mark Bankston, revealed that Mr Jones’ legal team had mistakenly sent him all the contents of Mr. Jones’ mobile phone, including at least two years of incriminating text messages that are now of interest to the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. The committee is looking into Mr. Jones’ role in planning the events surrounding the insurgency, and Mr. Bankston is now seek the judge’s approval to turn over the text recordings to prosecutors and the Jan. 6 committee.
Ms Lewis and Mr Heslin had sought $150million in damages, and Mr Bankston said he was optimistic the jury would award on Friday. “You can probably imagine that if a jury returns a verdict in excess of $4 million for these plaintiffs in compensatory damages, I think the sentence will likely be in that range or higher,” Mr Bankston said. “I think it’s only normal that we see a judgment over nine figures against Mr Jones.”
He added: “It’s been a long journey, and it’s really, really nice to be able to turn around and look at my clients, and say ‘he can’t get away with this. He can not. You had a defendant walk into that courtroom and say, “I think I should have to pay them a dollar.” And that jury said no.
Mr Jones said in his bankruptcy filing that he had paid $15million in legal fees for the Sandy Hook litigation so far. Citing the damages Ms Lewis and Mr Heslin had sought, Mr Jones called the award a ‘major victory’ in a video posted to Infowars on Thursday night, even as he urged viewers to buy products on his website to avoid what he portrays as financial ruin.
“I admitted I was wrong,” he said. “I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted to following the misinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury got it.
Mr. Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook libel suits by default last year after repeatedly failing to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. These rulings set the stage for the trial this summer.
More important than money, according to the Sandy Hook families, is society’s verdict on a culture in which viral misinformation damages lives and destroys reputations.
“Speech is free, but lies pay,” Mr Bankston told the jury last week. “It’s about creating change.”
At the heart of the lawsuit was a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” which profiled Mr. Jones. On the show, Mr. Heslin protested Mr. Jones’ refusal to fire. He recalled his final moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole in his head.”
Subsequently, Mr. Jones and Owen Shroyer, an Infowars host, aired shows implying that Mr. Heslin had lied.
“Will there be a clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Mr. Shroyer said on Infowars. “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
During the trial, Mr. Jones’ lawyer, F. Andino Reynal, said that Mr. Jones was essentially leading his own defense. After much uncertainty over whether the conspiracy broadcaster would testify, he was adamant that he would appear as the only witness in his defense.
Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis deployed various experts. The trial opened with testimony from Dan Jewiss, a retired Connecticut State Police investigator who led the Sandy Hook case; a forensic psychiatrist and the psychologist who treated Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis; and several Infowars employees, whose dubious statements allowed family attorneys to submit prejudicial evidence to Mr. Jones, including a televised version of the full interview with Ms. Kelly, in which Mr. Jones claimed to inflammatory misrepresentations.
Mr. Jones’s viewership and corresponding revenue grew sharply, to more than $50 million a year, in the decade after Sandy Hook.
His defense of the Second Amendment after the mass shooting caught the attention of mainstream news outlets. But it was Mr Jones’ alliance with former President Donald J. Trump, who appeared on Infowars in December 2015, that moved him from the far-right fringes to the center of Republican Party populism.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Trump have often echoed the same inflammatory false claims, including the racist “birth” lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States; that Muslims in the New York area “celebrated” the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; and the 2020 election lies that sparked violence on Capitol Hill last year.