AUSTIN, Texas — When viral lies harm private people, are the courts their best refuge? A trial to choose how much the conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones must pay a Sandy Hook family for defaming them attempts to reply that query.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of Jesse Lewis, 6, who died at Sandy Hook, are requesting $150 million in compensatory damages for years of torment and threats they endured within the aftermath of Mr. Jones’s lies about them on Infowars, his Austin-based website and broadcast. They’re suing him in the primary of three trials by which juries will determine how much he must pay relatives of 10 people killed within the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., for spreading lies that they were actors in a “false flag” operation, planned by the federal government as a pretext for gun control.
Last yr Mr. Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook defamation cases by default, setting the stage for the damages trials.
Mr. Heslin, Ms. Lewis and J.T. Lewis, Jesse’s brother, will testify this week.
More essential than money, the parents said, is society’s verdict on a culture by which viral misinformation damages lives and destroys reputations, yet those that spread it are seldom held accountable. “Speech is free, but lies you’ve to pay for,” Mark Bankston, the parents’ lawyer, told the jury in his opening statement last week. “This can be a case about creating change.”
However the trial demonstrates how difficult it’s to counter the views of die-hard conspiracy theorists. Over nearly three days of testimony last week, Daria Karpova, Infowars’ corporate representative, advanced bogus claims, refusing even to rule out the chance that the trial itself was a staged event. She solid Mr. Jones because the victim, worrying over his health and saying the Sandy Hook lawsuits have cost him “tens of millions.”
That claim allowed the families’ lawyers to share records with the jury showing that Infowars reaped revenues of greater than $50 million annually lately.
At the center of the trial is a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly,” by which Ms. Kelly profiled Mr. Jones. In the published Mr. Heslin protested Mr. Jones’s denial of the shooting. He recalled his last moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.”
Afterward, Mr. Jones and Owen Shroyer, a lieutenant of Mr. Jones at Infowars, aired shows implying that Mr. Heslin had lied. “Will there be a clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Mr. Shroyer said on Infowars. “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
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A devastating attack. On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother after which walked into the elementary school armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. He killed 26 people there, 20 of them children, before killing himself.
The push for gun control. Then-President Barack Obama vowed to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop such massacres from happening again. Though legislative efforts to pass a ban on assault weapons and expand background checks failed, a latest wave of activism focused on gun control gained traction following the shooting.
Lawyers say the three trials hold lessons for other cases against conspiracy-minded defendants, from the Jan. 6 insurrectionists to Trump allies sued for falsely claiming that voting machine manufacturers helped “steal” the 2020 presidential election. Mr. Jones can be under scrutiny for his role in events surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“These Sandy Hook parents have spent years of their lives and sacrificed whatever is left of their privacy to shine a light-weight on peddlers of disinformation, not only to hunt justice for his or her children, but to make folks who cash in on tragedy consider the results of their actions,” said Karen Burgess, a trial lawyer at Burgess Law in Austin who represented Dominion Voting Systems when it was sued by Texas conspiracy theorists who said the corporate helped rig the 2020 vote. Facing sanctions from the court, the conspiracy theorists dropped their suit against the corporate.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families say a verdict, expected this week in the primary trial, could send a signal to other conspiracy purveyors about the fee of online lies and set into motion a series of events that would shut Infowars down.
Still, the trail forward will not be clear. On Friday Mr. Jones put Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which normally routinely halts all pending litigation. Free Speech Systems, nonetheless, requested that the bankruptcy court lift that automatic stay, so the trial in progress can proceed to a verdict. That motion is ready for a hearing Monday morning in a bankruptcy court in Victoria, Texas. Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of the Travis County District Court indicated that the trial would proceed.
Lawyers for the families say an enormous jury award this week together with the bankruptcy could threaten Infowars’ operations, but many details about Mr. Jones’s current funds are murky.
For now the filing puts on hold the remaining two Sandy Hook damages trials, each scheduled for September.
In court last week, Mr. Jones’s lawyers launched a defense advanced by other defendants in politically charged defamation cases: Our national discourse has turn out to be so polluted by disinformation, they said, that who really knows what’s true or false?
Federico Andino Reynal, Mr. Jones’s lawyer, blamed errors in mainstream media reports about Sandy Hook for the bogus theories spread by Mr. Jones.
“He had seen what he perceived as so many lies and so many cover-ups and a lot hand-washing of the facts that he had turn out to be biased,” Mr. Reynal said. “He was the world through dirty glasses. And in case you have a look at the world through dirty glasses, all the pieces you see is dirty.”
But Infowars staffers testified that they didn’t check easily available facts about Sandy Hook — or much else — before broadcasting their incendiary assertions. Lawyers for Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis, using internal emails and testimony from Infowars staffers, showed how Mr. Jones and his top lieutenants ignored multiple warnings that continuing to broadcast Sandy Hook lies would harm the survivors and land Infowars in legal trouble.
In a videotaped deposition, a former worker, Rob Jacobson, said he repeatedly delivered these warnings to Infowars staffers, “only to be received with laughter and jokes.”
The NBC episode, which was shown in court, was particularly striking. In it Mr. Jones made quite a lot of damaging false claims, including dismissing a 2017 suicide bombing that killed 22 adults and youngsters at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, as an attack on “a bunch of liberal trendies,” who support “Islamist” immigration.
Mr. Shroyer also testified that he did not fact-check a false report on the episode defaming Mr. Heslin because he didn’t have the time.
On the trial last week, Mr. Jones’s seat on the defense table often remained empty. His lawyer, Mr. Reynal, has declined to say whether he’ll testify, adding that Mr. Jones is in control of his defense. Mr. Reynal told the judge that Mr. Jones’s absences were due to a “medical condition” that Mr. Jones, speaking outside the courthouse, described as an untreated hernia.
But he continues to broadcast his show, where he and Mr. Shroyer derided the trial last week, violating the judge’s order to not comment on it. When Mr. Jones did come to court, he drove up in a motorcade and sat within the courtroom surrounded by bodyguards. Last week Mr. Reynal thrust a raised middle finger into the face of the families’ lawyer in a dispute over exhibits that almost resulted in a fistfight.
The trial proceedings have taken a toll on Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis. They hired security after they spotted people waiting for them outside their hotel, they usually have heard Infowars loyalists describe them as pawns in Mr. Jones’s pursuit of online clout.
During his testimony in court on Thursday, Mr. Shroyer suggested that it was the lawsuits, not his and Mr. Jones’ lies, that exacerbated the families’ suffering. “I’m very upset that this continues,” he said, citing its “tremendous negative effects on my profession and livelihood.”