AUSTIN, Texas – (AP) – A Texas jury ruled Friday Alex Jones of Infowars to pay $49.3 million in total damages to the parents of a slain first grader the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacrewhich the conspiracy theorist falsely called a hoax orchestrated by the government in order to tighten US gun laws.
The amount is 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 deadliest classroom shooting in US history united The judgment is the first time Jones has been held financially responsible for selling lies about the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.
Jurors initially awarded Heslin and Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages, which Jones called a significant victory. But in the final phase of the two-week trial, the same Austin jury came back and awarded an additional $45.2 million in punitive damages.
Earlier this week, Jones testified that any award above $2 million “would sink us.” His company Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of Infowars, filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are intended to punish defendants for particularly heinous conduct, over and above the monetary compensation awarded to the people they injured. A high punitive award is also seen as an opportunity for juries to send a broader social message and a way to deter others from the same heinous conduct in the future.
The family’s lawyers had urged jurors to hand down a financial penalty that would leave Infowars.
“You have the ability to prevent this man from doing this again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury. “Send the message to those who want to do the same: speech is free. Lies, you pay.”
An economist hired by the plaintiffs testified that Jones and the company are worth as much as $270 million, suggesting Jones was still making money.
Bernard Pettingill, who was hired by the plaintiffs to look into Jones’ net worth, said records show Jones withdrew $62 million for himself in 2021, when default judgments were issued in the lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, a net worth,” Pettingill said. “He has money in a bank account somewhere.”
The money that flows into Jones’ companies eventually goes to him, said Pettingill, who added that he has testified in roughly 1,500 cases during his career.
But Jones’ lawyers said their client had learned his lesson and asked for leniency. The jury’s punishment should be less than $300,000, attorney Andino Reynal said.
“You’ve already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care needs to change,” Reynal said.
Jones, who was briefly in the courtroom Friday but not there for the verdict, still faces two other defamation lawsuits from Sandy Hook families in Texas and Connecticut that threatened his personal wealth and the ‘media empire.
Attorneys for the Sandy Hook families suing Jones say he has tried to hide evidence of his true wealth and have sued him alleging he has tried to hide money in several 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 the sale of 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 filed suit as a attack on their First Amendment rights, he acknowledged during the trial that the attack was “100% real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors 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 jurors how they have endured a decade of trauma, first inflicted by their son’s murder and what followed: gunshots at home, online and phone 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 his Infowars website.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” caused by ongoing trauma, similar to what a soldier at war or a victim of child abuse might experience.
Throughout the trial, Jones has been his typically bombastic self, talking 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 has reprimanded him, telling him at one point: “This is not your show.”
The trial has also drawn attention from outside Austin.
Bankston said in court Thursday the US House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has requested records on Jones’ phone that Jones’ lawyers mistakenly turned over to plaintiffs. Bankston later said he planned to comply with the committee’s request.
Last month, the commission of January 6 showed 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 first cited Jones in Novemberdemanding a deposition and documents related to his efforts to spread disinformation about the 2020 election and a rally on the day of the attack.
Find complete AP coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones
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