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 who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre, plus the $4.1 million he must pay for the suffering he put them through by claiming for years that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax.
The total, $49.3 million, is less 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 2012 attack in Newtown, Conn. But the marks of judgment the first time Jones has been held financially responsible for peddling lies about the massacre, claiming the government faked it to toughen gun laws.
Lewis later said that Jones, who was not in the courtroom to hear the verdict, was held accountable. He said that when he took the stand and looked Jones in the eye, he thought of his son, who is credited with saving lives by yelling “run” when the killer paused 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 was able to take on 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’s lead attorney, Andino Reynal, told the judge he will appeal and ask the courts to drastically reduce the size of the verdict.
After the hearing, Reynal said he believes the punitive amount will be reduced to as little as $1.5 million.
“We think the verdict was too high. … Alex Jones will be on the air today, it will be on the air tomorrow, it will be on the air next week. He is going to continue to do his job holding the power structure to account.”
Jones’ business and personal wealth could also be divided by other lawsuits and bankruptcy. Another defamation lawsuit against Jones by a Sandy Hook family will begin pre-trial hearings in the same Austin court on September 14. He faces another libel lawsuit in Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston said he believes he can challenge any attempts to reduce damages. But he said that even if the award is slashed, it’s just as important to take the big verdict to bankruptcy court for the family to claim against the Jones estate and company.
Jones testified this week that any prize of more than $2 million “would sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of Infowars based in Austin, filed for bankruptcy within the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are intended to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, beyond the monetary compensation awarded to the people they hurt. A high punitive award is also seen as an opportunity for jurors to send a broader social message and a way to deter others from the same abhorrent behavior in the future.
Barry Covert, a First Amendment attorney from Buffalo, New York, with no connection to the Jones case, said the total damages awarded amount to “an impressive loss for Jones.”
“At $50 million in total, the jury has sent a big, strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Covert said. “Anyone who has a show like this and knowingly tells lies, juries will not stand for it.”
Future jurors in other pending Sandy Hook trials could view the damage amounts in this case as a benchmark, Covert said. If other jurors do it, Covert said, “it could very well put Jones out of business.”
The family’s attorneys had urged jurors to hand down a financial penalty that would force Infowars to close.
“You have the ability to stop this man from doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury Friday. “Send the message to those who wish to do the same: expression is free. Lies, you pay.
An economist testified that Jones and the company are 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 entered in the lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, the value of a net worth,” Pettingill said. You have money deposited in a bank account somewhere.
But Jones’ attorneys said their client had already learned his lesson. They argued 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 your standard of care has to change,” Reynal said.
Friday’s damage drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented teachers in Sandy Hook.
“Nothing will ever solve the pain of losing a child, or seeing that tragedy denied for political reasons. But glad the Sandy Hook parents got some justice,” union president Randi Weingarten said in a tweet.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families suing Jones say 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 that described a single day’s gross receipts of $800,000 from the sale of vitamin supplements and other products through his website, which would approach nearly $ 300 million in one year. Jones called it a day of record sales.
Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as a attack on your First Amendment rights, admitted during the trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told the jury that an apology would not be enough and asked them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.
The parents told the jury they had endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by their son’s murder and what followed: gunshots in a house, phone and online threats, and street harassment by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were fueled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers through Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what a soldier in war or a victim of child abuse might experience.
Throughout the trial, Jones was his typically bombastic self., speaking about conspiracies on the witness stand, during impromptu press conferences and on his show. His erratic behavior is unusual by courtroom standards, and the judge scolded him, telling him at one point, “This is not his show.”
The trial also drew attention from outside of Austin.
Bankston told the court on Thursday that the US House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol has requested records of Jones’s phone that Jones’ attorneys had mistakenly provided to the plaintiffs. Bankston later said that he planned to comply with the committee’s request.
By Friday, Bankston said, he had “a subpoena on my desk” from the Jan. 6 committee. But she said he needed to “repress expectations” that he might reveal texts about the insurrection, as it appears to have been collected 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 displayed graphic and violent text messages and played videos of right-wing figures, including Jones, and others promising that January 6 would be the day they would fight for Trump.
The committee Jones first cited in Novemberdemanding a statement and documents related to his efforts to spread misinformation about the 2020 election and a rally on the day of the attack.
Associated Press writers 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