Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones must pay the parents of Sandy Hook victim Jesse Lewis damage awards totaling $4.1 million, an Austin jury determined Thursday — far below the $150 million requested.
But the financial hit against Jones and his main company, Free Speech Systems, might not be over.
In the next phase of the trial to begin Friday morning, jurors will be asked to issue punitive damages that are intended as punishment after hearing testimony from the parents' economic expert on the net worth of Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems.
Parents' lawyer Mark Bankston said he was not at all disappointed in the size of the verdict, calling $4.1 million a substantial sum for compensatory damages.
The next phase, for punitive damages, "becomes the real name of the game," he said, because then jurors can do what they were barred from doing on actual damages — issue an award intended to punish Jones.
"One thing's for sure. Mr. Jones is not going to sleep easy tonight after that verdict," Bankston said.
After hearing seven days of evidence and a range of witnesses, jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon and announced their verdict at about 4:15 p.m. Thursday.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis had asked jurors for $150 million in compensation for actual damages, saying Jones' portrayal of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as a hoax meant to justify a government crackdown on guns — and the parents as liars or collaborators — inspired harassment and death threats from Jones followers and made it impossible to heal from the tragedy.
Jones' lawyer, Andino Reynal, asked jurors to award a total of $8 — $1 for each of the eight harms the court has already found Jones and his main company, Free Speech Systems, to have inflicted on Jesse's parents.
Ten of the 12 jurors agreed on the verdict — the minimum number required for a decision. The four alternate jurors, two more than typical due to the pandemic and the length of the two-week trial, were dismissed Thursday.
Before hearing closing arguments Thursday, jurors were informed that Jones and Free Speech Systems defamed Heslin in two 2017 InfoWars reports that questioned Heslin's claim that he held his dead son and saw the bullet wound to his head after the shooting. Heslin testified that he made the statement in an NBC interview in hopes of stopping Jones' campaign and to protect the legacy of his son, who died a hero by yelling "Run!" when the gunman paused. Nine students fled; Jesse did not.
Jurors also were asked to determine the amount of money that would fairly compensate Heslin for past and future damage to his reputation and past and future mental anguish caused by the defamatory reports. They awarded $50,000 for past damage and $10,000 for future damage to his reputation, and $50,000 for past anguish.
Jurors also were told that Jones and his company inflicted intentional emotional distress on Heslin and Lewis by repeatedly portraying the Sandy Hook shooting as a hoax from 2012 to 2018, when they filed suit. Each parent was awarded $1.5 million for past mental anguish and $500,000 for future anguish.
According to the jury charge, the intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when a defendant acts recklessly, with extreme and outrageous conduct, "beyond all possible bounds of decency" that is "regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society."
Mental anguish was defined as "emotional pain, torment and suffering."
In his closing arguments, Kyle Farrar, a lawyer for the parents, reminded jurors that they were asked during jury selection whether they could approve a damages award of $100 million or more. Those who could not were weeded out during the selection process, he said.
"This is your opportunity to hold Alex Jones accountable for the harm he did," Farrar said.
Reynal said the parents, their expert witnesses and their lawyers failed to prove that they were actually and directly harmed by Jones' words.
The jurors next will be asked to award punitive damages that are intended as punishment. First, they will hear from the parents' economic expert on the net worth of Jones and his company. Jones also will testify in that phase, Reynal said.
Jones, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday evening, was asked if he accepted responsibility for causing pain to Jesse's family.
"I did not kill their son," Jones said. "And certainly questioning this big public thing that happened probably did cause them some pain, but it wasn't intentional. And you can't differentiate their pain from their son being killed with me questioning things, and the idea that I'm the progenitor that first thought all these anomalies up is simply not true."
According to InfoWars video played for jurors, on the day of the shooting, Jones questioned whether the attack was a "false flag" operation, saying it had the earmarks of a staged operation. In later years, he called the attack staged, completely made up and "phony as a three-dollar bill."
In addition to the punitive damages pending for Jesse's parents, Jones faces two similar damages trials — one in Austin for the family of 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim Noah Pozner, and another in Connecticut for the families of eight victims and an FBI agent who responded to the school shooting.
Action on those cases has been delayed by the recent bankruptcy filing by Jones' Free Speech Systems.
Jones also faces a separate damages trial in Austin for Marcel Fontaine, whom InfoWars mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Alex Jones trial verdict: Jury awards $4.1 million in Sandy Hook case