A US jury in Connecticut has ruled that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones should pay $965 million to people who suffered from his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre.
The verdict is the second big judgment against the Infowars host over his relentless promotion of the lie that the 2012 tragedy mass shooting never happened.
Jones had claimed that the grieving families seen in news coverage were actors hired as part of a plot to take away people’s guns.
The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by the relatives of five children and three educators killed in the massacre, plus an FBI agent who was among the first responders to the scene. A Texas jury in August awarded nearly $50 million to the parents of another slain child.
Robbie Parker, who lost his 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, said outside the Connecticut court that he was proud that “what we were able to accomplish was just to simply tell the truth.”
“And it shouldn’t be this hard, and it shouldn’t be this scary,” he added, his voice breaking.
"Actions have consequences"
Jones was not present at court but reacted on his Infowars show.
As courtroom video showed the plaintiffs' names being read out along with the jury awards to each, Jones said that he himself had never mentioned their names.
"All made up. Hilarious,” he said. “So this is what a show trial looks like. I mean, this is the left completely out of control.”
The trial featured tearful testimony from parents and siblings of the victims, who told about 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 of how conspiracy theorists had urinated on the grave of his 7-year-old son, Daniel, and threatened to dig up the coffin.
“I wish that after today, I can just be a daughter grieving my mother and stop worrying about the conspiracy theorists,” Lafferty said outside court. But she predicted that Jones' “hate, lies and conspiracy theories will follow both me and my family through the rest of our days.”
To plaintiff William Sherlach, the verdict “shows that the internet is not the wild, wild West, and that your actions have consequences.”
He had testified about seeing online posts that falsely posited that the shooting was a hoax, that his slain wife, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, never existed; that he was part of a financial cabal and somehow involved with the school shooter’s father; and more. He told jurors the shooting deniers' vitriol made him worry for his family's safety.
“Going forward — because, unfortunately, there will be other horrific events like this — people like Alex Jones will have to rethink what they say," Sherlach said.
Denials and defamation
Testifying during the trial, Jones acknowledged he had been wrong about Sandy Hook. The shooting was real, he said. But both in the courtroom and on his show, he was defiant.
He called the proceedings a “kangaroo court,” mocked the judge, called the plaintiffs’ lawyer an ambulance chaser and labeled the case an affront to free speech rights. He claimed it was a conspiracy by Democrats and the media to silence him and put him out of business.
“I’ve already said ‘I’m sorry’ hundreds of times, and I’m done saying I’m sorry,” he said during his testimony.
Twenty children and six adults died in the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012. The defamation trial was held at a courthouse in Waterbury, about 32 kilometres from Newtown, where the attack took place.
The lawsuit accused Jones and Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, of using the mass killing to build his audience and make millions of dollars. Experts testified that Jones’ audience swelled when he made Sandy Hook a topic on the show, as did his revenue from product sales.
In both the Texas lawsuit and the one in Connecticut, judges found the company liable for damages by default after Jones failed to cooperate with court rules on sharing evidence, including failing to turn over records that might have showed whether Infowars had profited from knowingly spreading misinformation about mass killings.
Because he was already found liable, Jones was barred from mentioning free speech rights and other topics during his testimony.
Jones now faces a third trial, in Texas around the end of the year, in a lawsuit filed by the parents of another child killed in the shooting.
It is unclear how much of the verdicts Jones can afford to pay. During the trial in Texas, he testified he could not afford any judgment over $2 million. Free Speech Systems has filed for bankruptcy protection. But an economist testified in the Texas proceeding that Jones and his company were worth as much as $270 million.
A lawyer for the families in the Connecticut case, Josh Koskoff, said that “if this verdict shuts down Alex Jones, good.”
“He’s been walking in the shadow of death to try to profit on the backs of people who have just been devastated,” Koskoff said. “That is not a business model that should be sustainable in the United States.”