Right-wing talk show host Alex Jones will have to pay the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim just over $4 million in compensatory damages, a jury ruled Thursday, closing a stunning case and drama that introduced audiences to the real-world damage caused by viral conspiracy theories.
The jury price was far less than the plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, had requested. Early in the trial, attorneys for Lewis and Heslin asked the jury to award their clients $150 million in compensatory damages.
A separate, shorter trial in which punitive damages will be discussed is now expected. Punitive damages are awarded when the court finds the defendant’s behavior to be particularly offensive.
Mark Bankston, an attorney for the parents, told CNN that the plaintiffs were happy with the jury’s decision, noting that they had also received pretrial money as a result of court-ordered sanctions against Jones.
“Having already obtained $1.5 million in fines from Mr. Jones, the plaintiffs now owe $5.6 million which Alex Jones will have to pay them,” Bankston said.
“Neil and Scarlett are delighted with the outcome and look forward to putting Mr Jones’ money to good use,” Bankston added. “Mr. Jones, on the other hand, will not sleep easy tonight. With punitive damages yet to be decided and multiple additional libel suits pending, it is clear that Mr. Jones’ time on the American scene is finally coming to an end.
A lawyer for Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.
The jury’s decision partially ends a years-long process that began in 2018 when Lewis and Heslin sued Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of right-wing media organization Infowars.
Jones made an unsubstantiated claim following the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 26 people were killed, that the incident was staged. Facing multiple lawsuits, Jones later acknowledged that the shooting took place. He testified in court this week that he now believed it was “100% real”.
But Jones failed to comply with court orders during the trial discovery process. His failure to do so led to Heslin and Lewis winning default judgments against Jones.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble ruled in October that Jones was legally responsible for inflicting emotional distress on Heslin and Lewis. Gamble also found Jones liable for the defamation of Heslin.
Jones claimed in his testimony that a jury award of just $2 million would destroy him financially.
But the accountant who is now tasked with overseeing Jones’ company, Free Speech Systems, the parent company of his conspiratorial media outlet Infowars, testified in bankruptcy court on Wednesday that Jones withdrew about $62 million from the company over 14 years. , including about $30 million. was paid to the IRS.
And the accountant testified that Infowars received around $9 million in cryptocurrency donations and “they went straight to Mr. Jones.”
The decision to punish Jones in such terms also comes at a seismic moment in American society, where lies and conspiracy theories have flourished in recent years.
The jury’s decision, while far less than plaintiffs’ attorneys had requested, sends a message to those who propel lies into public conversation, whether for political power or financial gain, that it can there are consequences to such behavior.
“Speech is free, but lies pay,” lawyers for the Sandy Hook family told the jury during their opening statements and closing arguments.
During the trial, Heslin and Lewis offered moving testimony, telling the jury that the lies pushed by Jones stained their son Jesse’s legacy and plagued them for years.
At times holding back tears, Heslin told the jury that Jones, through his conspiratorial Infowars media organization, “tarnished the honor and legacy” of his son. Heslin said he couldn’t ‘even begin to describe the last nine and a half years of hell’ he’s endured because of Jones, and detailed how he fears for his safety and that of his family. .
In a remarkable moment in court, Lewis addressed Jones directly, saying she wanted to address him to his face.
“Jesse was real,” Lewis told Jones. “I am a real mom.”
Lewis told the jury that she felt damages were appropriate in the case, as she did not believe Jones would otherwise stop his behavior.
“There was no sincere apology,” she said. “But if there was, ever, I liken it to a car accident and you run over someone and cause huge bodily damage and you look at that person lying on the ground and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m not responsible for any damage I just caused. But I’m sorry.’ That’s how I see it.
Lewis also reflected on what it meant that the trial should take place.
“It seems so unbelievable to me that we had to do this,” Lewis told Jones. “That we need to implore you – not just implore you, punish you – to stop lying… It’s surreal what’s going on here.
The trial in Texas is one of three expected to unfold over the next two months.
Another group of Sandy Hook families sued Jones in Connecticut. These families also obtained a default judgment against Jones and a trial was due to begin in September. But jury selection was suspended the same day it began earlier this week and the trial could be delayed due to a Free Speech Systems bankruptcy filing.
Lawyers representing some Sandy Hook families have accused Jones of draining assets from Free Speech Systems in recent years as part of an effort to protect himself from potential judgments he could be ordered to pay.
One of the attorneys, Avi Moshenberg, told CNN on Tuesday that the bankruptcy filing filed by Free Speech Systems showed that $62 million in assets were withdrawn from the company in 2021 and 2022.
“If you look at the bankruptcy filing, leading up to the declaration of bankruptcy, Alex Jones, the sole owner [of Free Speech Systems], took $62 million in drawdowns in 2021 and 2022,” Moshenberg told CNN. “Just direct draws. This is why the company has few assets.
– CNN’s Sonia Moghe contributed reporting.
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