A Texas jury has ordered US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4m in compensation to the parents of a six-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
The ruling on Thursday marks the first time the controversial Infowars host has been held financially liable for repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in US history was a hoax.
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The jury must still decide how much the Infowars host should 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, Connecticut.
The parents had sought at least $150m in compensation from Jones for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Jones’ lawyer asked the jury to limit damages to just $8 – one dollar for each of the compensation charges they considered – and Jones himself said any award over $2m “would sink us”.
The ruling will not be the last judgement against Jones – who was not in the courtroom – over his claims that the school 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 a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who worked on the Sandy Hook case. Jones also faces another trial in Austin.
Jones’ lead lawyer, Andino Reynal, winked at his co-counsel before leaving the courtroom on Thursday. He declined to comment on the verdict.
Outside the court, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Mark Bankston insisted that the $4.11m amount awarded was not a disappointment, noting it was only part of the damages Jones will have to pay.
The jury returns on Friday to hear more evidence about Jones and his company’s finances.
‘We aren’t done folks’
In a video posted to his website on 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 apologised 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, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, suggested any victory declarations by Jones 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 the jury 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 and underlines the financial threat he is facing.
It also raises new questions about the ability of the Infowars website – which has been banned from YouTube, Spotify and Twitter for hate speech – to continue operating, although the company’s finances remain unclear.
‘100 percent real’
Jones, who has portrayed the lawsuit as an attack on his First Amendment rights, conceded during the trial that the attack was “100 percent real” and that he was wrong to have lied about it.
Plaintiffs Heslin and Lewis told jurors that an apology would not 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 on Tuesday about how they had endured a decade of trauma, inflicted first by the murder of their son and what followed: gunshots 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 Infowars.
A forensic psychiatrist testified that the parents suffer from “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” inflicted by continuing 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 barely 10 feet (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.
Jones was the only witness to testify in his defence, and he only attended the trial sporadically while still appearing on his show.
Jones’ media company Free Speech Systems, which is Infowars’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy during the two-week trial.