September 27, 2022

AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas jury on Thursday awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting more than $4 million in damages from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the first time he has been found financially responsible for defaming the parents of the victims by spreading lies that they were complicit in a government conspiracy to stage the shooting as a pretext for gun control.

The ruling was the first in a series of potential awards against Mr Jones. On Friday, a 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 other trials by Sandy Hook parents seeking damages from Mr. Jones are scheduled for next month, though they may be delayed because his company filed for bankruptcy last week.

Mr. Jones has become increasingly emblematic of how misinformation and false narratives have gained traction in American society. It has played a role in spreading some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories in recent history, such as Pizzagate — in which an Infowars video helped inspire a gunman to attack a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. — as well as myths about the coronavirus and lies “Stop the Steal’ about election fraud before the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The verdict came after several days of emotional testimony, including 90 minutes on Tuesday when Ms. Lewis personally addressed Mr. Jones, asking him why he knowingly lied about the death of her child, Jessie, 6, who died with with another 19 firsts. students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“Jesse was a real boy. And I’m a real mum,” Ms Lewis told Mr Jones. Later she admonished him: “Alex, I want you to hear this. We are more polarized than ever as a country. Some of it is 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 accidentally sent him the entire contents of Jones’ mobile phone, including incriminating text messages dating back at least two years that are now of interest. to the House committee investigating the Capitol attack. The commission is looking into Mr Jones’ role in plotting the events surrounding the riot and Mr Bankston is now seeking a judge’s approval to hand over the text files to prosecutors and the January 6 commission.

Ms. Lewis and Mr. Heslin had asked for $150 million in damages, and Mr. Bankston said he was optimistic about what the jury would award on Friday. “You can probably imagine that if a jury returns a verdict of over $4 million for these plaintiffs in damages, I think the punishment will probably be in that range or higher,” Mr. Bankston said. “I think it is entirely foreseeable that we will see a decision in the nine-figure range against Mr. Jones.”

She added: “It’s been a long journey, and it’s really nice to be able to turn around and look at my clients and say, ‘She can’t go for this. Can not. You had a defendant come into that room and say, “I think I have to pay them a dollar.” And this jury said no.”

Mr. Jones said in the bankruptcy filing that he had so far paid $15 million in legal fees for the Sandy Hook trial. Referring to the damages sought by Ms. Lewis and Mr. Heslin, Mr. Jones called the award a “significant victory” in a video posted on Infowars on Thursday night, even as he urged viewers to buy products from his website to prevent depicted as an economic disaster.

“I admitted I was wrong,” he said. “I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted that I followed the misinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury got it.”

Mr. Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits by default last year after he repeatedly failed to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. Those decisions set the stage for the trial this summer.

More important than the money, the Sandy Hook families said, is society’s verdict on a culture in which viral misinformation damages lives and destroys reputations.

“Speech is free, but you have to pay for lies,” Mr Bankston told the jury last week. “This is a case of creating change.”

At the center of the trial was a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” that featured Mr. Jones. On the show, Mr. Heslin protested Mr. Jones’ denial of the shooting. He recalled his final moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole in his head.”

Afterward, Mr. Jones and Owen Sroyer, host of Infowars, went on broadcasts implying that Mr. Heslin had lied.

“Will there be clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Mr. Shroyer told Infowars. “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

During the trial, Mr. Jones’s lawyer, F. Antino Reynal, said that Mr. Jones essentially had his own defense. After much uncertainty about whether the conspiratorial broadcaster would testify, he was adamant that he would appear as the only witness in his defense.

Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis developed various experts. The trial began with the testimony of Dan Jewiss, a retired Connecticut police investigator who led the Sandy Hook case. a medical examiner and the psychologist who treated Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis. and several Infowars employees, whose dubious statements allowed the family’s lawyers to introduce evidence damaging to Mr. Jones, including a televised version of the full interview with Ms. Kelly, in which Mr. Jones made inflammatory falsehoods allegations.

Mr. Jones’s audience and corresponding revenue have skyrocketed, to more than $50 million a year, in the decade since Sandy Hook.

His defense of the Second Amendment after the mass shooting garnered attention from mainstream news organizations. But it was Mr. Jones’ alliance with former President Donald J. Trump, who appeared on Infowars in December 2015, that propelled him from the far-right fringes to the center of GOP populism.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Trump have often repeated the same inflammatory false claims, including the racist “birther” 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 fraud that brought violence to the Capitol last year.

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