AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury ordered Friday conspiracy theorist Alex Jones pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre, adding to the $4.1 million he must pay for the pain he caused them by claiming for years that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax.
The total – $49.3 million – is lower than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among 20 children and six educators killed in the attack on 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. But the trial marks the first time Jones was held financially responsible for peddling lies about the massacre, claiming it was orchestrated by the government to enforce gun laws.
Afterwards, Lewis said Jones – who was not in the courtroom to hear the verdict – was held responsible. She said when she took the helm and looked Jones in the eye, she thought of her son, who was credited with saving lives by shouting “run away” when the killer stopped in his rampage.
“He stood up to bully Adam Lanza and saved the lives of nine of his classmates,” Lewis said. “I hope I did justice to that incredible courage when I got to face off against Alex Jones, who is also a bully. I hope it inspires others to do the same.
It could take some time for the plaintiffs to get anything back. Jones’ lead attorney, Andino Reynal, told the judge he would appeal and ask the courts to significantly reduce the size of the verdict.
After the hearing, Reynal said he believed the punitive amount would be reduced to just $1.5 million.
“We think the verdict was too high. … Alex Jones will be on air today, he will be on air tomorrow, he will be on air next week. He will continue to do his job by holding the power structure accountable.
Jones’ businesses and personal wealth could also be cut by further lawsuits and bankruptcies. Another libel lawsuit against Jones by a Sandy Hook family is set to begin preliminary hearings in the same Austin court on September 14. He faces another libel lawsuit in Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston said he thought he could challenge any attempts to reduce damages. But he said that even if the price is significantly reduced, it is just as important to take the big verdict to bankruptcy court so that the family can claim against Jones’ estate and company.
Jones testified this week that any reward over $2 million would “sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, which is the Austin-based parent company of Infowars, filed for bankruptcy during the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are intended to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, beyond the monetary compensation awarded to those they injured. A high punitive award is also seen as a chance for jurors to send a broader societal message and a way to deter others from the same heinous conduct in the future.
Barry Covert, a Buffalo, New York, First Amendment attorney with no connection to the Jones case, said the total damages awarded amounted to “a breathtaking loss to Jones.”
“With $50 million in total, the jury sent a huge and strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Covert said. “Anyone with a show like this who knowingly tells lies – juries won’t tolerate that.”
Future jurors in other ongoing Sandy Hook trials could see the damages amounts in this case as a benchmark, Covert said. If other juries do, Covert said, “it could very well put Jones out of business.”
Lawyers for the family had urged jurors to issue a financial penalty that would force Infowars to shut down.
“You have the ability to stop this man from doing it again,” Wesley Ball, the parents’ attorney, told the jury on Friday. “Send the message to those who wish to do the same: speech is free. Lies, you pay.
An economist said Jones and the company were worth up to $270 million.
Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to study Jones’ net worth, said records show Jones withdrew $62 million for himself in 2021 when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, the value of a net worth,” Pettingill said. “He has money in a bank account somewhere.”
But Jones’ lawyers said their client had already learned his lesson. They pleaded for a punitive amount of less than $300,000.
“You have already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care needs to change,” Reynal said.
Friday’s damage drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented Sandy Hook teachers.
“Nothing will ever mend the pain of losing a child or witnessing this tragedy denied for political reasons. But I’m glad the parents of Sandy Hook got justice,” union president Randi Weingarten said in a tweet. .
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families who are suing Jones say he tried to hide evidence of his true wealth in various shell companies.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business managers detailing a single day’s gross income of $800,000 from the sale of vitamin supplements and other products. via its website, which would approach nearly $300 million in one year. Jones called it a record selling day.
Jones, who portrayed the trial as a attack on his first amendment rights, acknowledged during the 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.
Parents told jurors they had 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 via Infowars.
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.
Throughout the trial, Jones was his typically explosive self, talking about conspiracies on the witness stand, at impromptu press conferences and on his show. His erratic behavior is unusual by courtroom standards, and the judge scolded him, at one point telling him, “This isn’t your show.”
The lawsuit has also drawn attention from outside Austin.
Bankston told the court on Thursday that the United States House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol requested records of Jones’ phone indicating that Jones’ lawyers had mistakenly given to the plaintiffs. Bankston later said he planned to comply with the committee’s request.
On Friday, Bankston said he had “a subpoena on my desk” from the Jan. 6 committee. But he said he needed to “quell expectations” that it might reveal texts about the insurgency as it appears to have been retrieved for data in mid-2020.
Bankston said he also had a “law enforcement” interest in the phone data, but declined to elaborate.
Last month, the house committee showed graphic and violent text messages and played videos of right-wing figures, including Jones, and others swearing that January 6 would be the day they would fight for Trump.
The committee first assigned Jones in Novemberdemanding a deposition and documents related to his efforts to spread false information about the 2020 election and a rally on the day of the attack.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm in Chicago and Susan Haigh in Norwich, Connecticut, contributed to this report.
Find full AP coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones