AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury on Thursday ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million — significantly less than the $150 million demanded — in damages to the parents of a 6-year-old boy The Hook massacre marks the first time the Infowars host has been held financially liable for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in US history was a hoax.
The Austin jury has yet to decide how much Infowars will host should pay punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewiswhose son Jesse Lewis was among the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 attack in Newtown, Connecticut.
The parents had demanded compensation of at least $150 million for defamation and willful infliction of mental distress. Jones’ attorney asked the jury to limit the damage to $8 — one dollar for each of the compensation charges they considered — and Jones himself said any compensation over $2 million “would let us go under.”
It will likely not be the final verdict against Jones – who was not in the courtroom – for his allegations that the attack was staged in the interests of increased gun control. A Connecticut judge has ruled against him in a similar lawsuit brought by the families of other victims and an FBI agent who worked on the case. He’s also facing another trial in Austin.
Jones’ lead attorney Andino Reynal winked at his co-counsel before exiting the courtroom. He declined to comment on the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston insisted that the $4.11 million figure was no disappointment, noting that it was only part of the damages Jones had to pay.
The jury returns Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company’s finances.
In a video posted to his website Thursday night, Jones called the reduced award a major win.
“I admitted I was wrong. I admitted it was a mistake. I’ve admitted following disinformation, but not on purpose. I have apologized to the families. And the jury understood that. What I did to these 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 will work to make up for it,” Jones said.
Bankston suggested that any declarations of victory might be premature.
“We’re not done, folks,” Bankston said. “We knew when we got into this case it was necessary to shoot for the moon for the jury to understand that we were serious and passionate. After tomorrow he will owe a lot more.”
The grand total awarded in this case could set an example for the other lawsuits against Jones and underscores the financial threat he faces. 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 rightsHe admitted during the trial that the attack was “100% real.” and that it was wrong to have lied about it. But Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology would not be enough, urging them to make Jones pay for the years of suffering he caused them and other Sandy Hook families.
The parents testified Tuesday how they endured a decade of trauma, first caused by the murder of their son and what followed: gunshots at a house, online and phone threats, and street harassment from strangers. They said the threats and harassment were all fueled by Jones and that his conspiracy theory had spread to his followers through his Infowars website.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” caused by prolonged trauma, similar to what a soldier in war or a victim of child abuse may experience.
At one point in her statement, Lewis looked directly at Jones, who was sitting barely 10 feet away.
“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this – that we have to beg you to punish you – to get you to stop lying,” Lewis told Jones.
Barry Covert, a Buffalo, New York First Amendment attorney who is not involved in the Jones case, said the $4 million in damages was less than he expected given the evidence and testimony.
“But I don’t think Jones can take that as a win,” he added. “The fact is that $4 million is significant, although we might have thought it would be a little higher.”
Juries often decline to award punitive damages after deciding an award amount. But if they choose to do so, the penalty amount is often higher, Covert said. He expects the parents’ attorneys to argue that the jury should send the message that no one should benefit from defamation.
“They’re going to want the jury to send the message that you can’t make a quarter of a billion dollars hurting someone and say you’re just going to take the damages in court,” Covert said.
Jones was the only witness to testify in his defense, and he only attended the trial sporadically while still appearing on his show. And he was scathingly attacked by plaintiffs’ attorneys under cross-examination as they reviewed Jones’ own video claims about Sandy Hook over the years, accusing him of lying and trying to hide evidence, including text messages and emails about the attack . It also contained internal emails sent by an Infowars employee that read, “This Sandy Hook stuff is killing us.”
At one point, Jones was told that his attorneys had mistakenly sent Bankston the texts from Jones’ cell phone for the past two years. Bankston said in court Thursday that the Jan. 6 House of Representatives committee investigating the 2021 attack on the US Capitol requested the recordings 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 from an Infowars executive who told Jones that the company grossed $800,000 from the sale of his products earned in a single day. which would amount to nearly $300 million in a year.
Jones’ media company Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, has filed for bankruptcy during the two-week trial period.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.
For more information on AP’s coverage of school shootings: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings