AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – A Texas jury ordered Friday conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, added to 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 the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut. But the trial is taking its toll the first time Jones has been held financially responsible for lies about the massacre, claiming it was faked by the government to tighten gun laws.
Afterwards, Lewis said Jones – who was not in the courtroom for the sentencing – has been held accountable. She said when she took the stand and looked Jones in the eye, she thought of her son, who was credited with saving lives by yelling “run” when the killer paused in his rampage.
“He stood up to the bully Adam Lanza and saved the lives of nine of his classmates,” Lewis said. “I hope I did the incredible for justice when I was able to confront Alex Jones, who is also a thug. I hope it inspires other people to do the same.”
It may be a while before the plaintiffs collect anything. Jones’ lead lawyer, Andino Reynal, told the judge that he will appeal and ask the courts to drastically reduce the amount of the sentence.
After the hearing, Reynal said he believes the penalty amount will be reduced to as little as $1.5 million.
‘We think the sentence was too high. … Alex Jones will be on the air today, he will be on the air tomorrow, he will be on the air next week. He will continue to do his job of holding the power structure accountable.”
Jones’ businesses and personal fortunes could also be sliced up by other lawsuits and bankruptcy. Another defamation suit against Jones by a Sandy Hook family is set to begin pretrial hearings in the same Austin court on Sept. 14. He faces another defamation lawsuit in Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston said he believes he can challenge any attempt to reduce the damages. But he said even if the price is drastically cut, taking the big judgment in bankruptcy court for the family’s claim against Jones’ estate and company is just as important.
Jones testified this week that any price above $2 million would “slow us down.” His company, Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars’ Austin-based parent company, filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
Punitive damages are intended to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct, in addition to the financial compensation awarded to the individuals they injure. A high penalty award is also seen as a chance for jurors to send a wider societal message and a way to deter others from the same heinous behavior in the future.
Barry Covert, a Buffalo, New York, First Amendment attorney unconnected to the Jones case, said the total damages awarded amount to “an astounding loss for Jones.”
“At $50 million in total, the jury has sent a huge, loud message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Covert said. “Anyone with a show like this who is knowingly telling lies — juries won’t tolerate that.”
Future jurors in other pending Sandy Hook trials could look to the compensation amounts in this case as a benchmark, Covert said. If other juries do that, Covert said, “it may very well put Jones out of business.”
Lawyers for the family had urged jurors to impose a financial penalty that would force Infowars to shut down.
“You have the ability to stop this man from ever doing it again,” Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, told the jury Friday. “Send the message to those who want to do the same: Speech is free. Lies you pay for.”
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 to himself in 2021 when default judgments were issued in lawsuits against him.
“That number represents, in my opinion, a value of a net worth,” Pettingill said. “He’s got money put in a bank account somewhere.”
But Jones’ lawyers said their client had already learned his lesson. They argued for a punitive amount of less than $300,000.
“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.
Friday’s settlement drew praise from the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented the teachers at Sandy Hook.
“Nothing will ever take away the pain of losing a child or seeing that tragedy denied for political reasons. But I’m glad the parents of Sandy Hook got some justice,” union president Randi Weingarten said in a tweet.
Attorneys for the Sandy Hook families suing Jones allege 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 company executives that outlined 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 portrayed the trial as a attack on his first amendment rights, admitted it during the trial 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 urged them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.
The parents told jurors they have endured a decade of trauma, first inflicted by their son’s murder and what followed: shots fired at a home, online and phone threats and street harassment by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fueled by Jones, and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers via Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” caused 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, where he talks 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 berated him, at one point telling him, “This is not your show.”
The trial also attracted attention outside of Austin.
Bankston told the court Thursday the US House Committee Investigating the Rebellion on January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol has requested records from Jones’ phone that Jones’ lawyers had mistakenly turned over to the plaintiffs. Bankston later said he planned to comply with the committee’s request.
On Friday, Bankston said, he had “a subpoena sitting on my desk” from the Jan. 6 committee. But he said he had to “temper expectations” that it could reveal texts about the uprising, as it appears to have been scraped for data in mid-2020.
Bankston said he also had “law enforcement” interest in the phone data, but he 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, pledging that Jan. 6 would be the day they would fight for Trump.
The committee first subpoena Jones in Novemberand demanding a deposition and documents related to his efforts to spread misinformation about the 2020 election and a meeting on the day of the attack.
Associated Press writers Michael Tarm in Chicago and Susan Haigh in Norwich, Conn., contributed to this report.
Find AP’s full coverage of the Alex Jones case at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones