On Friday, a Texas jury ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in addition to the $4.1 million he is to pay for the suffering he put them through— by claiming for years that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax.
The total so far— $49.3 million— is still less than the $150 million sought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut. The trial marks the first time that Jones has been held financially liable for peddling lies about the massacre, claiming it was orchestrated by the government to tighten gun laws.
Afterward, Lewis said that Jones— who wasn't in the courtroom to hear the verdict— had been held accountable. She said when she took the stand and looked Jones in the eye, she had thought of her son, who was credited with saving lives by yelling “run” when the killer paused in his rampage.
“He stood up to the bully Adam Lanza and saved nine of his classmates’ lives," Lewis said.
"I hope that I did that incredible courage justice when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is also a bully. I hope that inspires other people to do the same.”
It could be a while before the plaintiffs collect anything. Jones' lead attorney, Andino Reynal, told the judge that he would appeal, and ask the courts to drastically reduce the size of the verdict.
After the hearing, the punitive amount could be reduced to as little as $1.5 million, according to Reynal.
"We think the verdict was too high… Alex Jones will be on the air today, he’ll be on the air tomorrow, he’ll be on the air next week. He’s going to keep doing his job holding the power structure accountable,” he said.
Jones' companies and personal wealth could also get carved up by other lawsuits and bankruptcy.
Another defamation lawsuit against Jones by a Sandy Hook family is set to start pre-trial hearings in the Austin court, on September 14. Jones faces yet another defamation lawsuit in Connecticut.
The plaintiffs' attorney Mark Bankston believed he could challenge any attempt to reduce the damages. Even if the award was drastically cut, it was just as important to take the big verdict into the bankruptcy court, for the family to claim against Jones’ estate and company.
Jones testified this week that any award over $2 million would “sink us”. His company, Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars' Austin-based parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, beyond monetary compensation awarded to the individuals they hurt. A high punitive award is also seen as a chance for jurors to send a wider societal message, and a way to deter others from the same abhorrent conduct in the future.
Barry Covert, a Buffalo, New York, First Amendment lawyer with no connection to the Jones case, said the total damages awarded amounted to “a stunning loss for Jones”.
“With $50 million in all, the jury has sent a huge, loud message that this behaviour will not be tolerated… Everyone with a show like this who knowingly tells lies— juries will not tolerate it,” said Covert.
Attorneys for the family had urged jurors to hand down a financial punishment that would force Infowars to shut down.
“You have the ability to stop this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury Friday.
“Send the message to those who desire to do the same: Speech is free. Lies, you pay for."
An economist testified that Jones and the company were currently worth up to $270 million.
Friday's damages drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented the teachers at Sandy Hook.
“Nothing will ever fix the pain of losing a child, or of watching that tragedy denied for political reasons. But I’m glad the parents of Sandy Hook have gotten some justice," union President Randi Weingarten said in a tweet.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families suing Jones contend he has 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, outlining a single day's gross revenue of $800,000 from selling vitamin supplements and other products through his website, which would approach nearly $300 million in a year. Jones called it a record sales day.
Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was “100 per cent real”, and that he was wrong to have lied about it. However, Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology wouldn’t suffice, and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he put them, and other Sandy Hook families, through.
The parents told jurors they’ve endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gunshots fired at a home, online and phone threats, and harassment on the street by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fueled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers, via Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents were suffering from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what might be experienced by a soldier at war or a child abuse victim.
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