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Jury awards Sandy Hook parents $4 million in damages in Alex Jones trial

Mark Bankston, lawyer for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, asked Alex Jones about the profits he makes a day during Jones's trial on Wednesday.BRIANA SANCHEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — A jury in Texas awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School more than $4 million in compensatory damages from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for defaming them by spreading lies that they were complicit in a government plot to stage the shooting as a pretext for gun control.

The jury deliberated for less than a day before issuing its decision Thursday in the trial for damages brought by Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, the parents of Jesse Lewis, 6, who was killed in the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

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In closing remarks Wednesday, Jones’s lawyer, F. Andino Reynal, had said the Infowars broadcaster and his company were prepared to pay a single dollar for each of the eight defamation claims.

In many ways, Jones has been emblematic of how misinformation and false narratives have gained traction in society over the past decade. He has played a role in spreading some of recent history’s most pernicious and dangerous conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate — in which an Infowars video helped inspire a gunman to attack a pizzeria in Washington — coronavirus myths and “Stop the Steal” falsehoods about election fraud before the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 2021.

The trial will now enter a second phase, in which the jury will consider evidence of Jones’s net worth to determine how much, if anything, to award Heslin and Lewis in punitive damages.

They had requested $150 million in compensatory damages for years of torment and threats after Jones’s lies about them on Infowars, his Austin-based website and broadcast. This is the first of three trials in which juries are being asked to decide how much Jones must pay relatives of 10 Sandy Hook victims for spreading lies that they were actors in a so-called false flag operation planned by the government.

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Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook defamation suits by default last year after repeatedly failing to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. Those rulings set the stage for the trials this summer, in which monetary damages will be awarded to the families as a result of their victories.

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

“Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Mark Bankston, Lewis and Heslin’s lawyer, told the jury last week. “This is a case about creating change.”

At the heart of the trial was a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” that profiled Jones. In the broadcast, Heslin protested Jones’s denial of the shooting. He recalled his last moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.”

Afterward, Jones and Owen Shroyer, an Infowars host, aired shows implying that Heslin had lied.

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

During the trial, Reynal said that Jones was essentially running his own defense. After much uncertainty about whether the conspiracy broadcaster would testify, he was adamant that he would appear as the sole witness in his defense. Heslin and Lewis deployed a range of experts.

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The trial opened with testimony from Dan Jewiss, a retired Connecticut State Police investigator who led the investigation into Sandy Hook; a forensic psychiatrist and the psychologist who treated Heslin and Lewis; and a range of Infowars employees, whose dubious statements allowed the family’s lawyers to submit evidence that was damaging to Jones, including a televised version of the full interview with Kelly, in which Jones advanced a range of incendiary false claims.

Jones’s audience and corresponding revenues have risen sharply, to more than $50 million annually, in the decade since Sandy Hook.

His defense of the Second Amendment after the mass shooting brought attention from mainstream news organizations. But it was Jones’s alliance with former president Donald Trump, who appeared on Infowars in December 2015, that moved him from the far-right fringes to the center of Republican Party populism.

Jones and Trump have often echoed the same incendiary 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 Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the 2020 election falsehoods that brought violence to the Capitol last year.

Jones is also under scrutiny for his role in planning events before the Capitol assault, and evidence presented in the current trial is potentially valuable to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, lawyers for the families say.

Bankston revealed in court Wednesday that he had text messages from Jones’s cellphone showing that he had withheld key evidence in defamation lawsuits brought by the families for lies he had spread about the 2012 school shooting. The messages were apparently sent in error to the families’ lawyers by Jones’s legal team and appear to cover a period when he was active in the effort to overturn the election.

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Bankston said Thursday in court that the House committee has asked for two years for the texts from Jones’s phone and that he intends to comply unless he is ordered not to.