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Alex Jones ordered to pay parents of Sandy Hook victim $4M US for calling massacre a hoax

A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million US in compensatory damages to the parents of a six-year-old boy who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Conspiracy theorist falsely said deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was staged

Conspiracy theorist and Infowars host Alex Jones is seen during his defamation trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million US in compensatory damages to the parents of a six-year-old boy who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, marking the first time the Infowars host has been held financially liable for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.

The Austin jury must still decide how much the Infowars host must pay in punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators who were killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Conn.

The parents had sought at least $150 million US in compensation for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jones' attorney asked the jury to limit damages to $8 US — one dollar for each of the compensation charges they are considering. Jones himself said any award over $2 million US "would sink us."

It likely won't be the last judgment against Jones — who was not in the courtroom — over his claims that the attack was staged in the interests of increasing gun controls. A Connecticut judge has ruled against him in a similar lawsuit brought by other victims' families and an FBI agent who worked on the case. He also faces another trial in Austin.

Jones' lead attorney, Andino Reynal, winked at his co-counsel before leaving the courtroom. He declined to comment on the verdict.

Outside the courthouse Thursday, the plaintiffs' attorney Mark Bankston insisted that the $4.11 million US amount wasn't a disappointment, noting it was only part of the damages Jones will have to pay.

Mark Bankston, lawyer for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, speaks to the media in Austin on Thursday. (Briana Sanchez/Reuters)

The jury returns Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company's finances.

In a video posted on his website Thursday night, Jones called the reduced award a major victory.

"I admitted I was wrong. I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted that I followed disinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury understood that. What I did to those families was wrong. But I didn't do it on purpose," he said.

The award was "more money than my company and I personally have, but we are going to work on trying to make restitution on that," Jones said.

Bankston suggested any victory declarations might be premature.

"We aren't done folks," Bankston said. "We knew coming into this case it was necessary to shoot for the moon to get to understand we were serious and passionate. After tomorrow, he's going to owe a lot more."

The total amount awarded in this case could set a marker for the other lawsuits against Jones, underlining the financial threat he's facing. It also raises new questions about the ability of Infowars — which has been banned from YouTube, Spotify and Twitter for hate speech — to continue operating, although the company's finances remain unclear.

Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was "100 per cent real" and that he was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology wouldn't suffice and called on them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he has put them and other Sandy Hook families through.

The parents testified Tuesday about how they've endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gun shots fired at a home, online and phone threats, and harassment on the street by strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fuelled by Jones and his conspiracy theory spread to his followers via his website Infowars.

A composite shot of a man and woman, speaking at microphones.
Scarlett Lewis, left, and Neil Heslin, parents of a six-year-old Sandy Hook victim, testified against Jones on Tuesday. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from "complex post-traumatic stress disorder" inflicted by ongoing trauma, similar to what might be experienced by a soldier at war or a child abuse victim.

At one point in her testimony, Lewis looked directly at Jones, who was sitting some three metres away.

"It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying," Lewis told Jones.

A photo of a young boy is seen on a TV screen in a darkened courtroom.
A photo of Jesse Lewis, a Sandy Hook shooting victim, is displayed at the Travis County Courthouse on Tuesday. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

Barry Covert, a Buffalo, N.Y., First Amendment lawyer who is not involved in the Jones case, said the $4 million in compensatory damages was lower than he would have expected given the evidence and testimony.

"But I don't think Jones can take this as a victory," he added. "The fact is, $4 million is significant even if we might have thought it would be a little higher."

Jurors often decline to award any punitive damages after deciding on a compensation figure. But when they choose to, the punitive amount is often higher, Covert said. He said he expects the parents' attorneys to argue that jurors should send the message that no one should profit off defamation.

"They will want jurors to send the message that you can't make a quarter of a billion in profit off harming someone and say you'll just take the damages loss in court," Covert said.

Jones was the only witness to testify in his defence, and he only attended the trial sporadically while still appearing on his show. And he came under withering attack from the plaintiffs attorneys under cross-examination, as they reviewed Jones' own video claims about Sandy Hook over the years, and accused him of lying and trying to hide evidence, including text messages and emails about the attack. It also included internal emails sent by an Infowars employee that said "this Sandy Hook stuff is killing us."

At one point, Jones was told that his attorneys had mistakenly sent Bankston, who is representing Heslin and Lewis, the last two years' worth of texts from Jones' cellphone. Bankston said in court Thursday that the U.S. House Jan. 6 committee investigating the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has requested the records and that he intends to comply.

And shortly after Jones declared "I don't use email," Jones was shown one that came from his address, and another one from an Infowars business officer telling Jones that the company had earned $800,000 US gross in selling its products in a single day, which would amount to nearly $300 million US per year.

Jones' media company Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars' parent company, filed for bankruptcy during the two-week trial.

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