By Terrance Turner
Aug. 3, 2022 (updated Oct. 12)
A jury in Connecticut has ordered InfoWars founder Alex Jones and his company Free Speech Systems to pay $965 million in damages to those he slandered. Jones must pay the families of eight victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, after he spent years calling the shooting a hoax and claiming the bereaved families were actors.
The verdict came in a lawsuit filed by the relatives of five children and three educators killed in the mass shooting, plus an FBI agent who was among the first responders to the scene. And it’s the second verdict against Jones this year. A Texas jury in August awarded nearly $50 million to the parents of another slain child.
Christopher Mattei, an attorney for the plaintiffs, urged jurors to award at least a half a billion dollars to his clients, per CNN. The figure, he said, would represent the more than 550 million online impressions Jones’ Sandy Hook lie allegedly received online.
“You may say that is astronomical. It is,” Mattei said. “It’s exactly what Alex Jones set himself up to do. That’s what he built. He built a lie machine that could push this stuff out. You reap what you sow.”
On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman fatally shot his mother and took his AR-15 to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. There, he 20 killed first-graders and six educators before killing himself.
Since the day of that shooting, per the Texas Tribune, Alex Jones has poured salt into those grieving families’ wounds by claiming the entire thing was a hoax. But he got his day in court. And lawyers for the Sandy Hook families caught him in a lie about text messages and emails he claimed to not have.
As far back as 2015, Jones used his company InfoWars to spread lies about the massacre: “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.” Jones called the massacre “a giant hoax” and a “false flag” operation by “crisis actors”, per the Washington Post. He published the addresses of the victims’ families and called for the heads of their attorneys “on a pike”, according to the New York Times.
In June 2017, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly profiled Jones for a primetime special, giving him a platform for his lies — on Father’s Day, no less. During that special, the father of a young boy killed in the shooting, recalled: “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Jones went online to claim the man was lying — a claim he’s made for years, to anyone who would listen.
That sparked a lawsuit. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of six-year-old Jesse Lewis — one of the 20 students killed at Sandy Hook — sued Jones for defamation. They are among several families that have sued Jones. “What was said about me and Sandy Hook itself resonates around the world,” Heslin said. “As time went on, I truly realized how dangerous it was.”
Also dangerous: the legal implications of Jones’ actions. According to a 2019 NBC News report, “Lawyers representing families of Sandy Hook massacre victims who are suing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said they received child pornography in documents they were sent by the Infowars founder, according to court papers filed Monday in Connecticut. Consultants working with the lawyers discovered the images in the documents that were requested during a court hearing in April, the filing states. A lawyer representing the families immediately alerted the FBI,” per NBC.
According to the Associated Press, “The trial featured tearful testimony from parents and siblings of the victims, who told how they were threatened and harassed for years by people who believed the lies told on Jones’ show.
Strangers showed up at their homes to record them. People hurled abusive comments on social media. Erica Lafferty, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, testified that people mailed rape threats to her house. Mark Barden told how conspiracy theorists had urinated on the grave of his 7-year-old son, Daniel, and threatened to dig up the coffin.”
The ripple effect of Jones’ actions affected the victims’ families. Mr. Heslin said that because of Jones’ slander, conspiracy theorists tried to contact him by phone, confronted and shoved him on the street. Someone fired a gun into his house and car.
Heslin became emotional as he discussed about the impact of Jones’ public statements.
“He tarnished the honor and legacy of Jesse,” Heslin said, while fighting back tears. “I can’t even begin to describe the last nine and a half years of hell we’ve suffered because of [Jones]. There’s got to be a strong deterrent that shall prevent him from peddling this propaganda,” Heslin told the court.
Jones wasn’t present for the testimony. But later that day, a scheduling accident caused Jones to show up at the courtroom during Lewis’ testimony. So Jones was face-to-face with Lewis. She confronted him directly as she testified.
“Alex, I want you to hear this,” Ms. Lewis said, fixing him in her gaze. “We’re more polarized than ever as a country. Some of that is because of you.” Mr. Jones nervously shook his head. But Lewis continued.
“I am a mother first and foremost and I know you are a father. My son existed,” Lewis said to Jones. “Having a six year old son shot in the forehead is an unbearable pain,” she said. “And then to have someone on top of that perpetuate a lie that it was a hoax, that it didn’t happen, that it was a false flag, and that I was an actress…”
“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this,” Lewis said to Jones. “That we have to implore you — not just implore you, punish you — to get you to stop lying… It is surreal,” she continued.
Lewis asked Jones: “Do you think I’m an actor?”
“No, I don’t think you’re an actor,” Jones answered. Then the judge admonished him to be quiet until called to testify.
Later, attorney Mark Bankston said Jones hadn’t complied with court orders to provide text message and emails for pretrial evidence gathering. Jones said, “I don’t use email.” But lawyers then showed a message from another source that came from his email address. He replied: “I must have dictated that.”
“One of the things that you were ordered to do in this lawsuit,” Bankston said, was “to turn over any text messages mentioning Sandy Hook. Right?”
“Yes,” Jones answered.
“And you didn’t have any, right?”
“Not that we could find,” Jones answered.
“And you in fact told me — in your testimony, sworn testimony, before coming to this courtroom — you searched. Right?”
“I did,” Jones said. Bankston then showed Jones text messages between him and Paul Watson that mentioned Sandy Hook.
Then Bankston went for the jugular. “Did you know that 12 days ago — 12 days ago — your attorneys messed up and sent me an entire digital copy of your entire cell phone, with every text message you’ve sent for the past two years?” he asked. “And when informed, did not take any steps to identify it as privileged, or protected in any way? And as of two days ago, it fell free and clear into my possession, and that is how I know you lied to me when you said you didn’t have any text messages about Sandy Hook?”
Jones was stunned — and, for once, silent.