By Jake Bleiberg, Dave Collins and Michael Tarm
DALLAS (AP) — The nearly $50 million defamation verdict against Alex Jones for his years of lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is far from a final reckoning.
Jones’ attorneys plan to appeal and try to lower the price tag a Texas jury put on his false claim that the nation’s deadliest school shooting — which killed 20 students and six teachers — was a hoax. The conspiracy theorist faces bankruptcy and other defamation lawsuits. And the courtroom conduct of Jones and his lawyers has exposed the Infowars host to new legal perils, including possible sanctions, allegations of perjury and renewed scrutiny in the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Here’s a look at the fallout from the successful suit against Jones by the parents of one of the child victims in the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at the school in Newtown, Connecticut.
WILL JONES PAY AND HOW MUCH?
A Travis County jury last week ordered Jones to pay Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the suffering he put them through by saying the shooting that killed their 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was staged to increase gun controls. The jurors also leveled $45.2 million in punitive damages against Jones, bringing the total fine to roughly a third of the $150 million the couple had sought.
It’s the first time Jones has been held financially liable for repeatedly claiming the Sandy Hook shooting was faked. Lewis said after the trial that Jones had been held accountable. His lawyers plan to appeal and to seek to reduce the damages.
Legal experts say Jones probably won’t pay the full amount.
In most civil cases, Texas law limits how much defendants have to pay in “exemplary,” or punitive, damages to twice the “economic damages” plus up to $750,000. But jurors are not told about this cap, and eye-popping verdicts are often hacked down by judges.
Russ Horton, an Austin attorney, said it’s “almost a surety” that the damages against Jones will be cut to conform with the law, either by an appeals court or the trial judge.
A Virginia judge did just that in Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Under a cap similar to Texas’ law, the judge in July cut the $10 million in compensatory damages that a jury awarded Depp to $350,000.
What Jones can afford is also disputed.
He testified that any award over $2 million would “sink us,” and Free Speech Systems — which is Infowars’ Austin-based parent company — filed for bankruptcy protection during the first week of the trial.
But economist Bernard Pettingill testified that Jones and his company are worth up to $270 million. He said Jones withdrew $62 million from the firm in 2021, when default judgments were issued in that case and two other Sandy Hook defamation suits.
Since the verdict, Jones has urged Infowars’ supporters to buy the nutritional supplements, survival gear and other products he sells, saying he needs funds to continue the show and his legal fights.
“If we don’t get solvent and get enough money to come out of this bankruptcy, they’ll appoint a receiver and start selling off the equipment,” he said Monday.
There would be extensive court wrangling before the Infowars studio could be sold for parts. But Jones has more immediate risks and may see his legal bills mount.
Jones appeared to be caught in at least one lie while on the witness stand, when a lawyer for the parents suing him revealed he had digital copies of texts and other content from Jones’ cellphone. The messages, including communications about Sandy Hook, were accidentally emailed to the plaintiffs’ attorneys by one of Jones’ lawyers.
Jones sought to shrug the revelation off in cross-examination, ridiculing an opposing lawyer and denying that he lied. But legal experts say the episode could open Jones up to a possible perjury charge.
Criminal charges of perjury are rare and difficult to prove, but Jones’ prominence may make him an attractive target, especially in liberal Austin.
“It would be very hard to imagine a state prosecutor going after someone in a civil case for perjury,” said Benson Varghese, an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas. “The chance are slightly higher for Jones, given the high-profile case.”
Aggravated perjury, the charge frequently brought in Texas for lies on the witness stand, is punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
A spokesman for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which would handle a potential criminal case against Jones, declined to comment.
Even if prosecutors never pursue a case, Jones could face further consequences from Judge Maya Guerra Gamble.
Before the trial, lawyers for the parents suing Jones filed a motion asking the judge to sanction him for failing to produce evidence. Gamble is set to take up that motion.
And in court, Gamble repeatedly admonished Jones to tell the truth.
At one point, she sent the jury out of the room and scolded him for telling jurors he complied with pretrial evidence gathering when he hadn’t. And the judge scolded him further for testifying that he’s bankrupt, which has not been determined by a court and prompted fury from the lawyers opposing Jones.
“This is not your show,” Gamble told Jones. “Your beliefs do not make something true. You are under oath.”
Judges have wide discretion to set sanctions – including fines, imprisonment and other punishments – but it’s rare to see them imposed.
Avi Moshenberg, a lawyer for the parents, declined to say whether they would seek other sanctions but said “there were certainly some troubling things that happened during trial.”
Jones attorney, Andino Reynal, did not respond to a request for comment.
JONES AND THE JAN. 6 INVESTIGATION
Jones’ lawyers accidentally handing over his text messages in the case also exposes him to further scrutiny from the U.S. House committee examining the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot that sought to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
The committee, which has spent months showing how former President Donald Trump relentlessly pushed his false claims of a rigged election, subpoenaed Jones to testify. And the panel’s chairman accused him of helping to organize a rally near the Capitol that preceded the insurrection.
Now, the lawmakers reportedly have Jones’ texts.
An attorney for the parents suing Jones, Mark Bankston, gave the committee two years’ worth of Jones’ messages, CNN reported Monday, citing an unnamed person familiar with the matter. Bankston told The Associated Press that he was “cooperating with the committee” but did not comment further.
On his Tuesday show, Jones downplayed the significance of the messages. He showed a photo of his wife in a swimsuit that he had sent to Roger Stone, a Trump confidant who was also subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee, and said the messages didn’t include anything past April 2020.
“It’s six months of limited texts,” Jones said. “It’s a fraction of my phone.”
Before the trial in Austin, Jones had already been found liable in a separate defamation lawsuit in Texas and another in Connecticut by relatives of some of the Sandy Hook victims.
The other Texas case was filed by Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, whose son Noah was killed in the shooting. The Connecticut case has the potential for a larger award because it consolidates three lawsuits filed by 15 plaintiffs, a former FBI agent who responded to the school and the relatives of nine Sandy Hook victims.
It will be up to a Connecticut jury to decide what, if any, damages Jones’ owes in that case, although law there could also limit what he would have to pay.
Trials for damages were scheduled to begin in both cases next month, but their progress has been complicated by Free Speech Systems’ July filing for bankruptcy protection, a process that freezes pending litigation.
Horton, the Austin lawyer, said the cases could potentially proceed against Jones personally while Free Speech Systems is in bankruptcy court, and he warned that filing for Chapter 11 gives the bankruptcy court tremendous power to examine Jones’ finances.
“Bankruptcy is not a place to hide out if you have anything to hide,” Horton said.
Collins reported from Hartford, Connecticut, and Tarm reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.