American right-wing talk show host Alex Jones will have to pay the parents of a victim of shooting Sandy Hook’s just over $4 million in compensatory damages, a jury ruled on Thursday, closing a stunning and dramatic case that showed the public the real damage. inflicted by viral conspiracy theories.
The jury’s compensation was much less than the plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, had asked for. At the start of the trial, lawyers for Lewis and Heslin asked the jury to award their clients $150 million in damages.
A separate, shorter trial during which punitive damages will be discussed is now expected. Punitive damages are awarded when the court finds the defendant’s behavior especially offensive.
Mark Bankston, the parents’ attorney, told CNN that the plaintiffs are happy with the jury’s decision, noting that they, too, had received pre-trial money due to the sanctions the court applied to Jones.
“Having already secured $1.5 million in fines from Mr. Jones, the plaintiffs now have $5.6 million that Alex Jones will have to pay them,” Bankston said.
“Neil and Scarlett are thrilled with the outcome and are eager to put Mr. Jones to good use,” Bankston added. “Mr. Jones, on the other hand, is not going to sleep easily tonight. With punitive damages yet to be decided and several additional defamation suits pending, it is clear that Mr. Jones on the American stage is finally coming to an end.”
A lawyer for Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jones himself celebrated the jury’s decision, calling it a “major victory for the truth” in a video posted online to his conspiratorial organization Infowars.
“They thought they were going to shut us down,” Jones said. “But the jury understood the truth and resisted the propaganda.”
The jury’s decision is a partial end to a years-long lawsuit that began in 2018, when Lewis and Heslin sued Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, which is the parent company of Infowars.
Jones said, unsubstantiated, after 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 did not comply with court orders during the case discovery process. Their failure to do so led to Heslin and Lewis winning standard 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 ruled that Jones was responsible for defaming Heslin.
Jones claimed in his testimony that a $2 million jury settlement would destroy him financially.
But the accountant who is now tasked with overseeing Jones’ company, Free Speech Systems, the parent of his conspiratorial media outlet Infowars, testified in bankruptcy court on Wednesday that Jones withdrew about $62 million from the company over the course of the year. of 14 years, of which about US$ 30 million were paid to the IRS.
And the accountant testified that Infowars received about $9 million in cryptocurrency donations and that “it went directly to Mr. Jones”.
The decision to punish Jones in these 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 inferior to what the plaintiffs’ lawyers had asked for, sends a message to those who push lies into the public conversation, whether for political power or financial gain, that there can be consequences for such behavior.
“Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Sandy Hook family lawyers argued to the jury during their opening statements and closing arguments.
During the trial, Heslin and Lewis both gave emotional testimony, telling the jury that the lies Jones pushed tarnished their son Jesse’s legacy and tormented them for years.
Fighting back tears at times, Heslin told the jury that Jones, through his conspiratorial media organization Infowars, “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 described in detail how he fears for the safety of himself and his family.
In a notable moment in court, Lewis spoke directly to Jones, saying that she wanted to address him to his face.
“Jesse was real,” Lewis told Jones. “I am a real mother.”
Lewis told the jury that she thinks the monetary damages were appropriate in the case because she doesn’t believe Jones would ever stop her behavior.
“There was no sincere apology,” she said. “But if there was, I compare it to being in a car accident and hitting someone and causing tremendous bodily harm and you look at that person lying on the floor and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m not responsible for any of the damage I’ve caused. . But I’m sorry. That’s how I see it.
Lewis also reflected on what it meant for the trial to have to take place.
“It feels so amazing to me that we have to do this,” Lewis told Jones. “That we have to beg you — not just beg, punish you — to stop lying… It’s surreal what’s happening here.”
The trial in Texas is one of three due to take place in the coming months.
A different group of families from the Sandy Hook shooting sued Jones in Connecticut. Those families also won a standard trial against Jones and another trial was set to begin in September. But jury selection was suspended the same day it began earlier this week and the trial could be delayed because of a Free Speech Systems bankruptcy filing.
Lawyers representing some of Sandy Hook’s families have accused Jones of draining free speech systems of assets in recent years as part of an effort to protect himself from potential judgments he could be ordered to pay.
One of the lawyers, Avi Moshenberg, told the CNN on Tuesday that Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy filing indicated that $62 million in assets had been withdrawn from the company in 2021 and 2022.
“If you look at the bankruptcy filing that led to the filing of bankruptcy, Alex Jones, the sole proprietor [da Free Speech Systems]took $62 million in sweepstakes in 2021 and 2022,” Moshenberg told CNN. “Only straight draws. That’s why the company has few assets.”
*Sonia Moghe of CNN contributed to the report
** US$ 1 = R$ 5
Source: CNN Brasil