Alex Jones Trial Live Updates: Jury to Consider Punitive Damages - The New York Times

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Tiffany Hsu

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Credit...Pool photo by Briana Sanchez

After ordering the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a child killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, jurors returned on Friday to consider awarding punitive damages.

The jury, which announced the partial award on Thursday after several dramatic days in court, was hearing additional testimony about the net worth of Mr. Jones and his misinformation-peddling media outlet Infowars.

Compensatory damages are based on proven harm, loss or injury, and are often calculated based on the fair market value of damaged property, lost wages and expenses, according to Cornell Law School. Punitive damages are designed to punish especially harmful behavior and tend to be granted at the court’s discretion, and are sometimes many multiples of a compensatory award.

Mr. Jones is accused of defaming the families of children killed in the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook school in 2012, falsely describing them as actors participating in a hoax (he acknowledged this week that the shooting was “100 percent real”). The award announced on Thursday for Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, died in the attack, was the first to arise from several lawsuits filed by victims’ parents in 2018.

A trial for damages in another of the suits is scheduled to begin next month in Connecticut, but it could be delayed because of a bankruptcy filing last week by Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company. Lawyers for the families criticized the move as another attempt by Mr. Jones to shield his wealth and evade judgment.

Key developments today include:

  • After Jones was ruled liable by default in the Sandy Hook cases, he began shoveling $11,000 per day into a shell company he controls, according to Bernard Pettingill, economic consultant and a former professor of economics at Florida Institute of Technology.

  • Mr. Pettingill pegged the net worth of Alex Jones and Free Speech Systems at between $135 million and $270 million.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 11:11 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 11:11 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

The jury is still out, formulating their questions. The lawyers for both sides are milling about, and shuttling in and out of the courtroom. There’s an almost relieved sense in the room that we are nearing a denouement in this drama.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

The judge is giving the jury a few moments to ask written questions of Pettingill. Jones, who left the courtroom before Pettingill’s testimony began, will not be called to testify.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:51 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:51 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Whatever one thinks of Jones, his lawyer has been absolutely unflappable in court, even when the families’ lawyers have revealed profound errors made by Reynal’s legal team, such as their inadvertent production of Jones’s text messages for the families’ lawyers.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:51 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:51 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Reynal is trying to establish that PQPR, controlled by the Jones family, is not a shell but “a real company.” Jones has claimed in bankruptcy court that he owes more than $50 million to PQPR, plunging him deeply into debt.

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Credit...Pool photo by Briana Sanchez

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:49 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:49 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Now Pettingill is being cross-examined by Reynal, Jones’s lawyer, who is attempting to cast doubt on Pettingill’s sources. It’s striking to me that Jones’s defense in this case is very similar to Infowars’ broadcasts. Reynal, in his opening statement, called the entire trial “a conspiracy of lies.”

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:43 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:43 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Jones withdrew $62 million from Infowars in recent years, Pettingill says, a number very much at issue in the dispute over Jones’s bankruptcy filing last week.

Tiffany Hsu

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:42 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:42 a.m. ET

Tiffany Hsu

Pettingill pegs the net worth of Alex Jones and Free Speech Systems at between $135 million and $270 million.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:40 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:40 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettingill says the minimum valuation of Infowars is $130 million without ad revenue, Amazon sales and other revenue streams whose records he doesn’t have because Infowars did not surrender them, though ordered to do so by the courts.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:39 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:39 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Jones’s lawyer, Federico Andino Reynal, asks Pettingill why Jones was removed from social media in 2018. Reynal objects to this and then there is a pause while the judge decides whether to allow the statements to be read to the jury.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:39 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:39 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettingill says Jones was removed because Infowars was spreading hate through broadcasted attacks on Jews, Muslims and transgender people, and inciting violence.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:30 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:30 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettingill says Infowars had revenues in 2021 of more than $64 million. That was the year of the default judgments against him.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:29 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:29 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

A big revelation here: After Jones was ruled liable by default in the Sandy Hook cases, he began shoveling $11,000 per day into a shell company he controls.

Image

Credit...Pool photo by Briana Sanchez

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:29 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:29 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettingill says Jones has a $53 million debt to himself that benefits him by making him look like he’s in debt when he’s not. Jones has further structured a series of notes that will benefit him in the future. One matures when he’s 74, and, Pettingill adds, “he only has a life expectancy of 76.” There’s a ripple of laughter in the courtroom.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:25 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:25 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettingill says it was difficult to assess Jones’s shell companies and overall business because he had few substantial records; Jones failed to provide them during the Sandy Hook litigation. It was this failure to provide court-ordered records and testimony that led to his losing all four Sandy Hook defamation cases against him. This is the first of three trials for damages for those cases.

Tiffany Hsu

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:22 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:22 a.m. ET

Tiffany Hsu

Pettingill describes Jones as being “like Genghis Khan” in his early foray into the internet. “He promulgated some hate speech and some misinformation, but he made a lot of money, and monetized that.”

Tiffany Hsu

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:22 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:22 a.m. ET

Tiffany Hsu

Pettingill says “we can’t really put a finger on what he does for a living, how he actually makes his money,” but says that Mr. Jones “is a very successful man.”

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:20 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:20 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettengill says Infowars revenues average $53 million annually.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Pettengill assessed the value of Monsanto before its sale. He also evaluated 3M, DuPont, Berkshire Hathaway. And now ... Infowars.

Tiffany Hsu

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m. ET

Tiffany Hsu

Bernard Pettingill, Jr., a forensic economist and former economics professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, has taken the stand and said he will provide testimony about Alex Jones’s net worth and the value of his company.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Jury is here. Expert witness for the families, Bernard Pettingill, economic consultant and a former professor of economics at Florida Institute of Technology, is being sworn in. He’s seated in the witness chair.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Judge Guerra Gamble is here, and getting ready to start. Jones is finally seated.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Jones seems too nervous to sit down. He keeps swiveling around to survey the media in the gallery. Last night on his show he blamed the “corporate media” and his political enemies for his travails.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:11 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

Jones is on his feet behind the defense table, talking with his lawyer while shifting from foot to foot, a kind of pacing-in-place with his hands in his pockets. His words are inaudible, but you can hear his characteristic gravelly voice.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:06 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:06 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

J.T. and a friend are sitting in the first row, as are Jake and Genevieve Zimmerman, lawyers who represented Lenny Pozner, the father of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, in his lawsuit against James Fetzer, a former University of Minnesota professor who edited a book titled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. Mr. Pozner won that case, putting Mr. Fetzer on the hook for more than $1 million in damages and sanctions.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:01 a.m. ET

Aug. 5, 2022, 10:01 a.m. ET

Elizabeth Williamson

The lawyers for both sides have arrived. Scarlett Lewis is here with her son, J.T. Lewis, the older brother of Jesse, who was killed at age 6 at Sandy Hook. Neil Heslin, Jesse Lewis's father, has arrived.

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 4, 2022, 7:04 p.m. ET

Aug. 4, 2022, 7:04 p.m. ET

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Credit...Tom Brenner for The New York Times

I met Mr. Jones in family court in Austin, Tex., in 2018 after a custody hearing with his ex-wife, Kelly Jones.

YouTube had a few days before removed four of Mr. Jones’s videos from its platform for violating its child endangerment and hate speech standards. (Mr. Jones has since had his content eliminated by most major social media companies.)

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Mr. Jones told me he blamed the mainstream news media for bringing him within “minutes of losing my kids.” He then did what few actually believed he would: He agreed to an interview with The New York Times.

When we met for the interview, Mr. Jones was holding a printout of a story I had written. The article included his demand, in court documents, for more than $100,000 in court costs from the parents of Noah Pozner, who died at Sandy Hook.

He jabbed his finger at me. “You have a responsibility. You wrote the blueprint article everybody else picked up where they said, ‘Alex Jones is the scum of the earth … People need to go after Alex Jones, people need to bankrupt Alex Jones, people need to kill Alex Jones,’” he said, “‘because he sends people to these parents’ houses and he won’t stop doing it.’”

Elizabeth Williamson

Aug. 4, 2022, 5:18 p.m. ET

Aug. 4, 2022, 5:18 p.m. ET

Image

Credit...Pool photo by Briana Sanchez

AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas jury on Thursday awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School more than $4 million in compensatory damages from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, 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 will consider 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.

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, D.C. — as well as coronavirus myths and “Stop the Steal” falsehoods about election fraud before the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 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, Conn.

“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 polarized 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’s legal team had mistakenly sent him the entire contents of Mr. Jones’s cellphone, including at least two years’ worth of incriminating text messages now of interest to the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. The committee is scrutinizing 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 Jan. 6 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, Mr. 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 apologized 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.”

At the heart of the trial was a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” that profiled Mr. Jones. In the broadcast, 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, an Infowars host, 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.”

During the trial, Mr. Jones’s lawyer, F. Andino Reynal, said that Mr. Jones was essentially running his own defense. After much uncertainty about whether the conspiracy broadcaster would testify, he was adamant that he would appear as the sole witness in his defense.

Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis deployed a variety of experts. The trial opened with testimony from Dan Jewiss, a retired Connecticut State Police investigator who led the Sandy Hook case; a forensic psychiatrist and the psychologist who treated Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis; and several Infowars employees, whose dubious statements allowed the family’s lawyers to submit evidence that was damaging to Mr. Jones, including a televised version of the full interview with Ms. Kelly, in which Mr. Jones advanced incendiary false claims.

Mr. Jones’s audience and corresponding revenues have risen sharply, to more than $50 million annually, in the decade since Sandy Hook.

His defense of the Second Amendment after the mass shooting brought attention from mainstream news organizations. But it was Mr. Jones’s alliance with former President Donald J. Trump, who appeared on Infowars in December 2015, that moved him from the far-right fringes to the center of Republican Party populism.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Trump have often echoed the same incendiary false claims, including the racist “birther” lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States; that Muslims in the New York area “celebrated” the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and the 2020 election falsehoods that brought violence to the Capitol last year.

Aug. 4, 2022, 2:15 p.m. ET

Aug. 4, 2022, 2:15 p.m. ET

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Credit...Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The lawyer for plaintiffs who are suing the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said Thursday that he plans to turn over two years of text messages from Mr. Jones’s phone to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The lawyer, Mark Bankston, who represents Sandy Hook parents suing Mr. Jones in defamation lawsuits for lies he had spread about the 2012 school shooting, said in court in Austin, Texas, that he planned to turn over the texts unless a judge instructed him not to do so.

“I certainly intend to do that, unless you tell me not to,” Mr. Bankston told the judge, Maya Guerra Gamble, who appeared unsympathetic to requests from Mr. Jones’s lawyers that Mr. Bankston return the materials to them.

When lawyers raised the possibility that the texts could be subpoenaed by the committee, the judge replied, “They’re going to now. They know about them.”

A person familiar with the House committee’s work said the panel had been in touch with the plaintiffs’ lawyers about obtaining materials from Mr. Jones’s phone.

Mr. Bankston said in court that Mr. Jones’s lawyers mistakenly sent him text messages from Mr. Jones, as they attempted to defend him in court for broadcasting conspiracy theories that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and that the families were actors.

Mr. Bankston said they included texts with the political operative Roger J. Stone Jr. Mr. Bankston said he had heard from “various federal agencies and law enforcement” about the material.

“Things like Mr. Jones and his intimate messages with Roger Stone are not confidential. They are not trade secrets,” Mr. Bankston said.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has been pushing to obtain Mr. Jones’s texts for months, saying they could be relevant to understanding Mr. Jones’s role in helping organize the rally at the Ellipse near the White House before the riot. In November, the panel filed subpoenas to compel Mr. Jones’s testimony and communications related to Jan. 6, including his phone records.

The committee also issued a subpoena for the communications of Timothy D. Enlow, who was working as Mr. Jones’s bodyguard on Jan. 6.

In response, Mr. Jones and Mr. Enlow sued in an attempt to block the committee’s subpoenas. Mr. Jones eventually appeared before the panel in January and afterward said he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination nearly 100 times.

“I just had a very intense experience being interrogated by the Jan. 6 committee lawyers,” he said at the time. “They were polite, but they were dogged.”

Even though Mr. Jones refused to share information with the committee, he said the investigators seemed to have found ways around his lack of cooperation. He said the committee had already obtained text messages from him.

“They have everything that’s already on my phones and things,” he said. “I saw my text messages” with political organizers tied to the Jan. 6 rally.

According to the Jan. 6 committee, Mr. Jones facilitated a donation from Julie Jenkins Fancelli, the heiress to the Publix Super Markets fortune, to provide what he described as “80 percent” of the funding for the Jan. 6 rally and indicated that White House officials told him that he was to lead a march to the Capitol, where Mr. Trump would speak.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Stone were among the group of Trump allies meeting in and around, or staying at, the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, which some Trump advisers treated as a war room for their efforts to get members of Congress to object to the Electoral College certification, which was taking place when the riot swamped the building.

Mr. Jones conducted an interview with Michael T. Flynn, who served briefly as national security adviser to Mr. Trump, from the Willard on Jan. 5 in which the men spread the false narrative of a stolen election.

Mr. Jones was then seen among the crowd of Mr. Trump’s supporters the next day, amplifying false claims but also at times urging the crowd to be peaceful. Among those who marched alongside him to the Capitol was Ali Alexander, a promoter of the “Stop the Steal” effort who has also been issued a subpoena.

“The White House told me three days before, ‘We’re going to have you lead the march,’” Mr. Jones said on his internet show the day after the riot. “Trump will tell people, ‘Go, and I’m going to meet you at the Capitol.’”

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