New York (CNN Business) — Right-wing talk show host Alex Jones will have to pay the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim just over $4 million in compensatory damages, a jury decided Thursday, capping a surprising and dramatic case that showed public the real-world damage inflicted by viral conspiracy theories.
The plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, had sought $150 million in compensatory damages when the trial began.
A separate, shorter trial is now expected during which punitive damages will be discussed. Punitive damages are awarded when the court finds the defendant’s behavior to be especially offensive.
The jury’s decision is the partial end of a years-long process that began in 2018 when Lewis and Heslin sued Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, which is the parent of the right-wing media organization Infowars.
Jones unsubstantiatedly claimed after the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 26 people were killed, that the incident was staged. Facing multiple lawsuits, Jones later acknowledged the shooting occurred. He testified in court this week that he now believed it was “100% real.”
But Jones failed to comply with court orders during the lawsuit discovery process. His failure to do so led to Heslin and Lewis winning default judgments against Jones.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble ruled in October that Jones was legally responsible for inflicting emotional distress on Heslin and Lewis. Gamble also ruled that Jones was responsible for defaming Heslin.
The decision to punish Jones in such terms also marks a seismic moment in American society, where lies and conspiracy theories have flourished in recent years.
The jury’s decision sends a clear message to those who spread lies in the public conversation, whether for political power or financial gain, that such behavior can have consequences.
“Freedom of expression is free, but lies must be paid for,” the Sandy Hook family’s attorneys argued before the jury during their opening and closing arguments.
“I’m a real mom”
During the trial, Heslin and Lewis gave emotional testimony, telling jurors that the lies promoted by Jones tainted their son Jesse’s legacy and haunted them for years.
Fighting back tears at times, Heslin told the jury that Jones, through his conspiratorial media organization Infowars, “stained the honor and legacy” of his son. Heslin said she couldn’t “even begin to describe the last nine and a half years of hell” she has endured because of Jones, and described in detail how she fears for the safety of him and his family.
In a notable moment in court, Lewis spoke directly to Jones and told him that he wanted to address him to his face.
“Jesse was real,” Lewis told Jones. “I’m a real mom.”
Lewis told the jury that he feels money damages were appropriate in the case because he doesn’t think Jones would stop behaving otherwise.
“There has been no sincere apology,” he said. “But if there ever was, I compare it to being in a car accident and you run someone over and cause tremendous physical damage and you look at that person lying on the ground and say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m not responsible. of any of the damage I just caused. But I’m sorry.’ That’s how I see it”.
Lewis also reflected on what it meant that the trial would ever have to take place.
“I find it unbelievable that we have to do this,” Lewis told Jones. “That we have to beg you — not just beg you, punish you — to stop lying… It’s surreal what’s going on here.”
The trial in Texas is one of three expected to unfold in the coming months.
A different group of Sandy Hook families sued Jones in Connecticut. Those families also won a lawsuit against Jones, and a trial is scheduled to begin in September. But jury selection was suspended on the same day it began earlier this week and the trial could be delayed due to Free Speech Systems filing for bankruptcy.
Lawyers representing some Sandy Hook families have accused Jones of having emptied Free Speech Systems’ assets in recent years as part of an effort to protect himself from potential judgments he may be ordered to pay.
One of the attorneys, Avi Moshenberg, told CNN Tuesday that Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy filing indicated that $62 million in company assets had been withdrawn in 2021 and 2022.
“If you look at the bankruptcy filing, which led to the bankruptcy filing, Alex Jones, the sole owner [de Free Speech Systems], took $62 million in drawings in 2021 and 2022,” Moshenberg told CNN. “It just draws directly. That’s why the company has few assets.”