By Jack Queen
AUSTIN (Reuters) - As the jury in the Alex Jones defamation trial gathered in a conference room in a Texas courthouse on Aug. 5 to decide how much the U.S. conspiracy theorist owed to two parents of a murdered Sandy Hook first-grader, sums at first ranged from $500,000 to $200 million, a juror told Reuters.
"We saw those numbers on the board and someone said, 'Well, I guess we're never leaving this room,'" said Sharon, a juror who asked that her last name be withheld because she fears harassment by Jones' followers.
Sharon, the first juror to speak publicly about the case, wrote her preferred number on a strip of paper and passed it to the front. One woman pooled everyone's votes and wrote them on a whiteboard. Sharon declined to share her number with Reuters.
Reuters was able to obtain contact information for two other members of the 12-person jury panel. One declined to comment and another did not respond to inquiries.
Because the judge overseeing the case had in September already found Jones liable for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress for claiming the killing of 20 children and six staff members at the school in Newtown, Connecticut, was staged, the only question facing the jurors in the two-week trial was how much money he had to pay.
The high-profile trial was prompted by Jones' bogus claims that the shooting was part of a government plot to confiscate Americans' firearms and that the victims' families were complicit in the scheme. He repeatedly aired the claims on his media outlet Infowars, which is owned by Free Speech Systems LLC. Jones has since acknowledged the shooting occurred.
The Texas case was brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was murdered in the shooting. Jones is awaiting trial over damages in two other Sandy Hook cases in which he has also been found liable.
TOO NERVOUS TO EAT
The deliberation room in the Depression-era Austin courthouse was a tight fit, and some jurors had to sit in chairs along the wall, Sharon said. Over Domino's pizza, the panel wrestled for nearly seven hours with the question of how much in punitive damages to award the parents, Sharon said, though she was too nervous to eat. The vote on such damages, which are meant to punish defendants for their conduct, was required to be unanimous.
The plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for $150 million.
The previous day, the same panel after about five hours of deliberations had voted 10-2 that Jones must pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages. Those damages are meant to cover the plaintiffs' suffering and losses and required only a majority of jurors to agree.
The judge, Maya Guerra Gamble, required the jury to separately decide the two types of damages.
Sharon, a mother of two who works in the nonprofit sector, said she and her peers struggled to arrive at either figure. There was tension during deliberations over whether dollar values could even be assigned to the abstract concept of emotional suffering, Sharon said.
At first, some jurors were skeptical that Heslin and Lewis were entitled to any compensatory damages at all. The two parents had testified that followers of Jones and his Infowars site harassed and sent them death threats for years in the false belief that they were actors lying about the death of their son.
"We all believed that Neil and Scarlett were credible," Sharon said. "There just weren't tangible things behind their mental anguish, and we were asked to award between $1 and $150 million without any guidance."
Heslin and Lewis couldn't point to specific monetary losses that they suffered because of Jones' conduct, and neither side's lawyers offered clear advice on how to quantify the emotional distress that the conspiracy theorist caused them, Sharon said.
For instance, rather than easily quantifiable financial harm, she said, the parents spoke about less measurable types of anguish, such as sleepless nights and flashbacks to the day of the shooting.
Jurors didn't give much credence to the parents' lawyers request: $1 for every one of the 24% of Americans who doubt or don't believe Sandy Hook happened, Sharon said. The figure was based on a single poll, and jurors didn't think that was enough evidence to justify the $150 million that the parents sought, Sharon said.
Instead, they calculated the damages based on their own formulas, and by the end of the afternoon, the room resembled a math classroom, she said.
Mark Bankston, an attorney for the parents, told Reuters in an email on Sunday that "in a case with no concrete losses or economic damages, the fact that the jury was prepared to award a multimillion verdict speaks volumes."
Jones' attorney, Federico Andino Reynal, told Reuters on Sunday that he was "pleased" with how the jurors assessed the evidence, but he still believed the award was too high.
Sharon said she knew little about Jones before trial. She described herself as a left-leaning moderate but said she doesn't follow political news closely.
At first she was even amused by some of the clips of Jones' show played during the trial, such as ones in which an agitated Jones railed against nefarious plots by a cast of villains including "lizard people," she said. But conspiracies vilifying parents of slain first-graders were different, she said.
"To say these things about this terrible tragedy — elementary school kids being murdered — it's just different than if you want to believe in lizard people," she said.
Jurors managed to keep politics out of the discussion, but as the day dragged on, there were raised voices and tension over whether one could put a price on mental anguish.
Eventually they arrived at $4.1 million total in compensatory damages, apportioning different amounts for each parent according to the jury's assessment of their past and present suffering. There was a show of hands, and all but two jurors joined in, Sharon said.
Punitive damages were less difficult, she said, as the group immediately agreed Jones and Infowars should be punished. They disagreed, however on how severe the punishment should be.
Sharon said jurors decided to award punitive damages worth 10% of Jones' net worth per parent. Jones is worth between $130 million and $270 million, a plaintiffs' expert testified. The jurors' punitive damages verdict was $45.2 million.
That award could wind up being slashed by the judge to as little as 10% because of a Texas law that caps punitive damages, legal experts said.
Reynal said on Sunday that punitive damages should be reduced to $1.5 million under the cap.
Lawyers for the parents told Reuters they will argue the cap does not apply.
Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in Texas midway through the trial. A group of Sandy Hook parents intervened in the case and asked a judge to freeze the company's assets to prevent Jones from funneling cash to different entities.
The verdict has symbolic value, but it does not change the underlying societal problems that make Jones' conspiratorial thinking appealing to so many, she said.
"Nobody was super happy with it," she said of the verdict.
(Reporting By Jack Queen in Austin; Editing by Amy Stevens, Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)