AUSTIN, Texas — Lawyers for the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting told a jury here on Tuesday that the conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones should pay them $150 million for claiming that they were complicit in a government plot to fake the shooting as a pretext for gun control efforts.
The $150 million figure, proposed by the parents’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, represents the first time the family of a Sandy Hook victim has put a dollar amount on the suffering Mr. Jones and his Infowars website and broadcast, based in Austin, caused by spreading lies about the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 first graders and six educators.
The dollar amount, while large, was suitable, Mr. Bankston said, calling Mr. Jones’s false claims “the most despicable and vile campaign of defamation and slander in American history.”
Mr. Jones, who was in the courtroom for both sides’ opening statements Tuesday, was visibly unnerved by the proposed award. During a break he exploded in anger in the corridor outside the courtroom, calling the proceedings a “show trial” and deeming them a “Constitution-destroying, absolute, total and complete travesty.”
Before the trial began Mr. Jones momentarily placed a length of duct tape over his mouth bearing the Infowars.com logo and the words “Save the 1st,” a reference to the First Amendment. Mr. Jones laid the tape with its slogan down on the table in front of him during the opening statements, in view of the jury, while shaking his head in disagreement with Mr. Bankston’s remarks.
He was seated a few feet away from Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of the child killed at Sandy Hook, Jesse Lewis, 6.
The trial is the first of three in which juries will decide how much to award the families of the victims in damages. In this first trial, Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis are to testify about the torment they have suffered since Mr. Jones implied on his show in 2017 that Mr. Heslin’s televised recollection of cradling Jesse’s body shortly after the shooting was false. The family has since endured years of accusations and threats.
Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, the parents of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, are scheduled to testify at a second trial in September in Austin. That same month, the families of eight other Sandy Hook victims will testify at the third trial, in Connecticut.
The trials come after the families of the 10 victims won defamation lawsuits against Mr. Jones last year, when judges ruled that he was liable by default for repeatedly failing to provide court-ordered documents and testimony. Those rulings set the stage for this summer’s trials, in which juries will award monetary damages to the families as a result of their victories.
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
Mr. Jones’s lawyer, Federico Reynal, suggested during jury selection on Monday that he would ask the jurors to award the parents a single dollar in damages, partly because the additional trauma caused by Mr. Jones paled so greatly in comparison to the death of their son.
Mr. Bankston said in his statement on Tuesday that the $150 million award symbolized one dollar for the parents’ reputational damage and one dollar for their emotional damage for each of the one-quarter of Americans who said in a 2013 Fairleigh Dickinson University survey that they thought the Sandy Hook shooting was definitely or possibly faked.
“For ten years, Mr. Jones has robbed Neil and Scarlett of the time they needed to heal over the violent death of their son Jesse, because Mr. Jones wanted to sell more of his products,” he said. “That is a huge verdict, to be sure, but it is one that will do justice to the level of harm done in this case.”
Mr. Reynal began his opening remarks by calling Mr. Bankston’s presentation “a conspiracy of lies.”
“I am honored to represent Alex Jones” and his business, Mr. Reynal said. “He is one of the most polarizing figures in this nation,” who had been “canceled, punished for statements related to this case.”
Mr. Reynal repeated Mr. Jones’s long-held claim that he was only echoing the false claims of others, including members of his Infowars audience. In fact, Mr. Jones spread false claims about the shooting on his broadcast only hours after the event.
Mr. Reynal also advanced a claim made by others who have been sued for spreading political lies, including falsehoods about the 2020 election: that a claim, no matter how incendiary or wild, is not defamatory if the person making it believes it to be true, or, as Mr. Jones has claimed, they can’t tell truth from falsehood because they been misled by what Mr. Reynal called “mainstream media lies.”
Travis County District Court Judge Maya Guerra Gamble repeatedly cautioned Mr. Jones’s lawyers that they were not litigating his First Amendment right to make the false claims, because he had already forfeited his right to a trial in the defamation suits.
The proposed $150 million award would be for compensatory damages only, Mr. Bankston said. The jury will also decide on whether to award punitive damages. Mr. Jones has achieved revenues of more than $50 million annually in recent years, selling diet supplements, conspiracy-focused videos and books, body armor and doomsday preparation gear on his broadcasts. Mr. Bankston aims to present records released by Infowars during preparations for the trial indicating that Mr. Jones’s broadcasts about Sandy Hook had caused Infowars’ audience and product sales to surge.
The Sandy Hook families say they have a broader goal: They want the trials to alert Americans to the mounting damage done to vulnerable people and civic life by viral political lies, whether bogus theories denying mass shootings or false claims of a stolen 2020 election that brought violence to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“This a case about creating change,” Mr. Bankston told the jury on Tuesday. “You have the power to stop this from ever happening again.”
Mr. Jones, an ally of former President Donald J. Trump who broadcast the Jan. 6 attack live as it unfolded, is under scrutiny for his role in planning events surrounding the riot.