Infowars host Alex Jones ordered to pay $49.3m over Sandy Hook hoax claim

Conspiracy theorist claimed parents complicit in government plot to stage shooting

A Texas jury has ordered Infowars’ Alex Jones to pay $49.3 million in damages to the parents of a pupil killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre which the conspiracy theorist falsely called a hoax.

Alex Jones was on Friday ordered to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, a day after he was ordered to pay $4.1 million in actual damages for the false claim.

It is the first time he has been held financially liable for defaming the victims’ parents by spreading lies that they were complicit in a government plot to stage the shooting as a pretext for gun control.

The decision was the first in a series of potential awards against Mr Jones.

On Friday the jury considered evidence of Mr Jones’s net worth to determine how much, if anything, to award the parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, in punitive damages.

“We ask that you send a very, very simple message, and that is: stop Alex Jones. Stop the monetisation of misinformation and lies,” Wesley Todd Ball, a lawyer for the couple told jurors.

Two other trials by Sandy Hook parents seeking damages from Mr Jones have been scheduled for next month, though they may be delayed because his company filed for bankruptcy last week.

Mr Jones has become increasingly emblematic of how misinformation and false narratives have gained traction in American society. He has played a role in spreading some of recent history’s most pernicious conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate – in which an Infowars video helped inspire a gunman to attack a pizzeria in Washington – as well as coronavirus myths and “Stop the Steal” falsehoods about election fraud before the Capitol assault on January 6th, 2021.

The verdict came after several days of emotional testimony, including 90 minutes on Tuesday when Ms Lewis personally addressed Mr Jones, asking him why he knowingly spread lies about the death of her child, Jesse (6), who died along with 19 other first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Jesse was a real boy. And I am a real mom,” Ms Lewis told Mr Jones. Later she admonished him: “Alex, I want you to hear this. We’re more polarised than ever as a country. Some of that is because of you.”

But the most explosive revelation came Wednesday, when the family’s lawyer, Mark Bankston, revealed that Mr Jones’ legal team had mistakenly sent him the entire contents of Mr Jones’s mobile phone, including at least two years’ worth of incriminating text messages now of interest to the House of Representatives committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. The committee is scrutinising Mr Jones’s role in planning events surrounding the insurrection, and Mr Bankston is now seeking the judge’s approval to deliver the text records to prosecutors and the January 6th committee.

Ms Lewis and Mr Heslin had requested $150 million in damages, and Mr Bankston said he was optimistic about what the jury would award on Friday.

“You can probably imagine that if a jury returns a verdict exceeding $4 million for these plaintiffs in compensatory damages, I think punishment is probably going to be in that range or higher,” Mr Bankston said. “I think it’s perfectly expected that we’re going to see an over nine-figure judgment against Mr Jones.”

He added: “It’s been a long journey, and it’s really, really nice to able to turn and look at my clients, and say ‘he can’t get off scot-free for this. He can’t. You had a defendant who went into that courtroom and said, ‘I think I should have to pay them a dollar.’ And this jury said no.”

Mr Jones said in his bankruptcy filing that he had paid $15 million so far in legal costs for the Sandy Hook litigation. Citing the damages that Ms Lewis and Mr Heslin had requested, Jones called the award a “major victory” in a video posted on Infowars on Thursday night, even as he urged viewers to buy products from his website to stave off what he portrayed as financial ruin.

“I admitted I was wrong,” he said. “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.”

Mr Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook defamation suits by default last year after repeatedly failing to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. Those rulings set the stage for the trial this summer. More important than money, the Sandy Hook families have said, is society’s verdict on a culture in which viral misinformation damages lives and destroys reputations.

“Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Mr Bankston told the jury last week. “This is a case about creating change.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.