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Alex Jones and Infowars Must Pay Sandy Hook Parents More Than $45 Million In Punitive Damages

VICE US
Anna Merlan
2022-08-05
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v7vvwa/alex-jones-and-infowars-must-pay-sandy-hook-parents-more-than-dollar45-million-in-punitive-damages

An Austin, Texas jury has found that Alex Jones and Infowars must pay Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of Jesse Lewis, $45.2 million in punitive damages for the comments that Jones and the network made over the years about Sandy Hook being a “hoax.” Jesse Lewis was six years old when he was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. The verdict brings to an end the first of three damages trials that Jones will face against Sandy Hook parents; he and Infowars have already lost all the cases brought against them by default. 

On Thursday, the jury ruled that Jones and Infowars must pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages. The punitive judgment today brings the total to about $49 million total. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had requested $150 million total. All twelve jurors were required to sign onto today’s decision; only ten jurors needed to agree to yesterday’s judgment.

The judgment today was broken up into three parts: $4 million dollars plus $200,000 on the first jury charge, $20 million plus $500,000 on the second, and another $20 million plus $500,000 on the third.

Jones had been visibly relieved by the first verdict, declaring it a “big victory against the tyrants and the New World Order” on his Thursday night broadcast. Today’s verdict will likely be capped due to Texas law, which states that punitive damages can’t be more than twice the compensatory damage amount plus $750,000. (Whether the cap will apply will likely be decided in an appeals process.)

Before their verdict, members of the jury heard testimony from a forensic economist named Bernard Pettingill, who tried to put a number value on the net worth of Alex Jones and Infowars. This was made more difficult by the fact that Infowars is a private company which has been extraordinarily secretive about its financial information; after all, it lost the Sandy Hook cases by default after judges in both states ruled that they failed to meaningfully respond to discovery, including disclosure of key financial information. 

Nonetheless, Pettingill testified that he was able to determine that Free Speech Systems (FSS), Infowars’ parent company, has a net worth of at least $130 million on the low end, and that Jones and the company may have a combined net worth of up to $270 million. (Free Speech Systems recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a move the Sandy Hook families’ attorneys have greeted with reasonable suspicion, believing it might be a way to delay paying the judgments levied against him. It adds a level of complication to the next two trials.)

Pettingill also testified that two enormous loans, totalling $53 million, that FSS  has said it needs to pay back to another Infowars’ holding company, PQPR Holdings, seems designed to make it look as though FSS has less in net worth than it actually does. Records also show, he testified, that Jones withdrew $61.9 million from the company in 2021, after the default judgments were issued.

“He can say he’s broke, he has no money, but that’s not correct,” Pettingill testified. Jones claimed on an Infowars live broadcast on Thursday that the company is “insolvent” and that he’ll have to start laying people off and canceling shows if viewers don’t send him donations.

Pettingill also estimated that over 2016 to 2018, Infowars likely made about $165 million from its store, which sells books, movies, and supplements; that isn’t accounting for the money made through Amazon, eBay or from straight donations. And he said that it’s functionally impossible to separate Free Speech Systems or Infowars from Jones himself. The organization, he said, “is an inverted T where everything flows to Alex Jones.” At another point, he told them, “You cannot separate Alex Jones from the company.”

In closing arguments, Wesley Ball, an attorney for the plaintiffs, thanked the jury for the judgment they’d already rendered the day before. "With your verdict, you have restored Jesse’s name. You have restored Jesse’s honor." But he argued that Jones’ conduct on Infowars during the trial showed it was virtually impossible to change him or to make him care; it could only serve to punish him, he said, and to deter others like him. 

"You have the ability today to stop this man from ever doing this again, from continuing to tear the fabric of our society apart for the great monetary gain that he’s received thus far,” Ball said, “and to send a message again to those who desire to do the same."

In his closing argument, Jones’ attorney Federico Reynal argued that the $4.1 million judgment from Thursday had already shown “talk show hosts” like Jones “what their standard of care” should be going forward. He questioned the valuation of the company and Jones provided by Pettingill, although the defense hadn’t provided one to counter it, and closed by urging the jury to present a “proportionate” verdict.

Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mother, is the founder of a nonprofit called the Choose Love Movement, which provides no-cost programs teaching emotional and social skills to school-aged kids. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have previously said Heslin and Lewis intend to donate the award to the nonprofit. In a continued and transparent attempt to try to distance himself from the harm he’s done, Jones also dubiously claimed on Infowars this week that he will “raise money” for the organization and take Heslin and Lewis out to dinner.

Immediately after the verdict was read, Reynal announced that they would be filing an objection to the entry of judgement, as expected, under Texas laws about caps on judgments. Mark Bankston, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, announced in court that he will be seeking sanctions against Reynal for his conduct during the case.

“It’s been an exhausting two weeks for all of us,” Judge Maya Guerra Gamble told the court, before leaving. She expressed relief that they’d been able to reach a verdict at all: “I think that was really important.”

The pre-trial phase for the next damages trial against Jones and Infowars is set to begin in September, although the bankruptcy filing from Free Speech Systems could delay that process.