Conspiracy Theorist Sued After Claiming Sandy Hook Shooting was a Hoax
Mass shootings have plagued America for decades and have continuously fueled debates about the nation’s gun control laws. On the one hand, Democrats often advocate for tighter gun laws to reduce the number of fatal shootings this country currently sees. Yet, at the same time, Republicans generally argue that the 2nd amendment right to bear arms should be vigorously protected. So what happens when conspiracy theories get intermingled in this heated debate? The trials of Alex Jones, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, answer this question.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting was the second deadliest school shooting in American history. On December 14, 2012, an armed 20-year-old man entered Sandy Hook and shot, in total, 20 first graders and six faculty before shooting himself. In the aftermath of this horrific incident, a push was made by victims' families at the local and state level and by former President Barack Obama at the national level to pass stricter gun laws. However, just as with every demand for gun reform, there was significant criticism and opposition.
Alex Jones owns a website called Infowars and its parent company, Free Speech Systems, and is a well-known conservative influencer and conspiracy theorist. A few months after the Sandy Hook shooting, Jones published a broadcast on his website stating the incident was merely a hoax, fabricated by the government to justify stripping Americans of their guns, and that the victim’s families were merely crisis actors. For years, Jones published articles and broadcasts arguing that very claim regarding the shooting’s legitimacy, which purportedly led to Jones’ fans harassing and threatening the families of Sandy Hook victims both online and in person. According to testimony from current court proceedings, one family even resorted to leaving Connecticut due to the level of harassment they experienced. As a result of his statements and their effects, multiple families filed lawsuits against Jones for defamation and emotional distress in both Texas (the location of Jones’ broadcast) and Connecticut (where the shooting took place).
In August 2022, the two-week Texas trial in which two families sued Jones and his companies for $150 million in damages took place. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the plaintiffs, recalled during their testimonies how reactions to Jones’ claims created a “living hell” for them. Later in her testimony, Scarlett Lewis - whose 6-year-old son died in the shooting - addressed Jones directly, stating, “My son existed.” Jones, who also testified, admitted that the shooting was “100 percent real” and that his actions were irresponsible.
During questioning, the plaintiff’s lawyer revealed that Jones’ lawyer accidentally sent him Jones’ private text messages, which included information that contradicted his previous testimony. As a result of this and other incidents, Judge Maya Guerra Gamble had to repeatedly remind Jones about his duty to tell the truth under oath. Further, the plaintiff’s lawyer showed videos in court from Jones’ website in which he questioned the jury’s legitimacy and aired an image depicting Judge Gamble in flames. In the end, the jury decided to award the families both $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages.
The Connecticut trial began in September 2022, with the jury awarding the plaintiffs nearly $1 billion in damages in mid-October. However, this case had some slight differences from the Texas trial. For one thing, the Connecticut case has 15 plaintiffs: parents to 8 victims and an FBI agent who responded to the shooting. Further, the charges include defamation and emotional distress and charge Jones with using his false claims to increase his profits in violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Before the trial began in early September, Jones held a press conference in which he called the proceedings a “travesty of justice” and claimed that Judge Barbara Bellis was a tyrant. During the trial, his hostile tone didn’t change. Despite being reminded by Judge Bellis multiple times not to make political statements in court, Jones continued to rant about political questions regarding the court’s legitimacy and the First Amendment. He also expressed that he wouldn’t continue to apologize for his actions.
On October 6, 2022, Norm Pattis - Jones’ attorney - and Christopher Mattei - the plaintiffs’ attorney - delivered their closing arguments, turning the jury’s attention in two different directions. First, Pattis reminded the jury that, in this case, their job is to decide how much Jones should compensate the plaintiffs based on the level of losses or damage incurred by his actions. He then argued that Jones was not responsible for the reactions to and spreading his belief that the shooting was fake. Thus, the plaintiffs and their families who testified have been blaming his client excessively. In other words, Jones was not the root cause of all the families’ suffering, and the jury shouldn’t charge him as such. The internet, Pattis claimed, is bigger than Jones himself and, thus, can lead to unpredictable consequences separate from an individual's actions.
Further, Pattis reminded the jury that punitive damages should only cover monetary expenses the plaintiffs incurred in regard to the case - such as medical bills. Considering that Mattei failed to show any monetary losses incurred by the plaintiffs, punitive damages should be limited to covering attorneys' fees. Finally, he continued that compensatory damages should only cover the plaintiffs' losses due solely to Jones’ actions, meaning the jury legally should not seek to compensate the families for the loss of their children but rather only for any loss caused by Jones’ lies.
In his closing arguments, Mattei argued that the best way to discourage Jones from continuing to spread lies on his website is by making him pay at least $550 million - a number that amounts to $1 for every one of Jones’ viewers.
Ultimately, the jury decided Jones should pay $965 million in compensatory damages. However, Jones claims that he doesn’t have enough money to pay these damages, and Pattis argues that such a figure is inappropriately high considering the evidence of the case. Thus, Jones and his legal team might file for an appeal of this latest decision. However, Jones has not seen the end of legal action against him, as another defamation suit related to Sandy Hook waits for him back in Texas. Additionally, Jones’ attorney is challenging the nearly $50 million charge from the first case as being above the cap set by Texas laws.