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Alex Jones ordered to pay nearly $1 billion to Sandy Hook families

Oct. 12, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 12, 2022 at 8:01 p.m.

Alex Jones, radio host and creator of the website Infowars, center, speaks into a megaphone on April 18, 2020, as demonstrators gather during a “You Can’t Close America” rally outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin.   (Alex Scott/Bloomberg)
Alex Jones, radio host and creator of the website Infowars, center, speaks into a megaphone on April 18, 2020, as demonstrators gather during a “You Can’t Close America” rally outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin. (Alex Scott/Bloomberg)
By Joanna Slater Washington Post

A Connecticut jury ordered Infowars founder Alex Jones to pay $965 million in damages to the families of eight victims of the Sandy Hook shooting for the suffering caused by years of lies that the massacre was a hoax.

Wednesday’s verdict marks the largest award to date in a multi-pronged legal battle by the families to hold Jones responsible for circulating falsehoods about the 2012 mass shooting where 20 children and six educators were killed in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Within hours of the shooting, Jones was telling his audience that it was staged as a pretext for confiscating guns. Within days, he began to suggest that grieving parents were actors. In the years that followed, he repeatedly said the massacre was faked.

The families testified during the trial that the lies spread by Jones led to harassment and threats by conspiracy theorists who have accused them of faking their own children’s deaths. They described feeling unsafe in their own homes and hypervigilant in public. Some of the families moved away from Newtown.

The size of the punitive award is considered a sign that jurors found a defendant’s conduct particularly reprehensible and harmful – and as a way of deterring future wrongdoing.

The Connecticut case is one of three defamation suits filed against Jones by relatives of the victims, who have said that they hope to prevent other families from enduring similar abuse.

In August, a jury in a different case in Texas said Jones must pay nearly $50 million to the parents of Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old killed in Sandy Hook. The actual payout, however, will be far smaller due to state limits on such awards.

Jones is a reckless purveyor of conspiracy theories and a prominent supporter of former President Trump, who has returned the praise. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones in late 2015 as he ramped up his campaign for the presidency. “I won’t let you down.”

In 2018, YouTube, Facebook, Apple, Spotify and Twitter all removed Jones from their platforms, saying he violated their policies against abusive and harmful content.

Earlier this year, as Jones faced multiple defamation suits, he acknowledged in court that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook was “100 percent real” and expressed some regret for his statements. But last month, he once again told his audience that people were right to raise questions about the massacre, saying, “I don’t really know what really happened there.”

Jones refused to share crucial evidence – including financial records and data on traffic to his websites – with the plaintiffs in the Connecticut case in violation of his legal obligations. Judge Barbara Bellis entered a default judgment against him holding him liable for defamation. The jury’s only task, Bellis said as deliberations began, was to determine “the extent of the harm.”

The state of Jones’s finances is murky. In the Texas trial, Bernard Pettingill, a forensic economist hired by the plaintiffs, estimated that Jones and his companies have a net worth of up to $270 million. Pettingill also said Jones withdrew $62 million in 2021.

Jones has said his businesses are struggling: Earlier this year, Infowars and its parent company Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy protection.

During his testimony last month, Jones was largely unrepentant. When Christopher Mattei, a lawyer for the families, told Jones to show more respect for the relatives in the courtroom, Jones lashed out.

“Is this a struggle session? Are we in China?” Jones said, a reference to Maoist-era rallies used to denounce and humiliate. “I’ve already said I’m sorry hundreds of times, and I’m done saying I’m sorry.”

Over the past month, all the plaintiffs – the relatives of eight of the victims and an FBI agent who responded to the shooting – testified at the trial. They described receiving threats and hate mail from conspiracy theorists who believed they were “crisis actors.”

Francine Wheeler, whose six-year-old son Ben was killed at Sandy Hook, spoke about how hoaxers seized on her career as a singer and performer to spread sinister theories about the family. They also circulated a photo of a choir performance by her older son, who had survived the shooting, to suggest that no children had been killed at the school.

“It is one thing to lose a child,” said Wheeler. “It’s quite another thing when people take everything about your boy who is gone, and your surviving child, and your husband, and everything you ever did in your life on the internet and harass you.”

Robbie Parker’s daughter Emilie, 6, was killed in the shooting. He was the first parent to speak publicly in the wake of the massacre. Just before Parker made an anguished statement to the media, he gave a brief nervous smile as he saw the assembled journalists. Jones seized on the moment as evidence of the purported hoax, playing the seconds-long clip again and again in the years after the shooting.

Parker described the shame he felt for the harassment faced by the families, believing that he had somehow “brought this on everybody.” Parker’s voice trembled and his body shook as he told the court that he still feels a sense of responsibility, even though logically he knows that it was not his fault.

William Aldenberg, a former FBI agent, responded to the scene of the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012. He too became a target of conspiracy theories.

Mattei, the lawyer for the families, asked Aldenberg if what he saw in the school that day was fake. “No, no. No sir,” he responded. Mattei asked if there were any actors there. “No,” Aldenberg said, overcome with emotion. “It’s awful, awful.”

“Their children got slaughtered,” Aldenberg said, addressing the families. “I saw it myself, and now they have to sit here and listen to me say this.”

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