https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-news-verdict-alex-jones-sandy-hook-connecticut-defamation-trial-20221011-20221012-4kofka5dtvc4ddxsj5xofocy64-story.html

A Connecticut jury on Wednesday ordered broadcaster and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay nearly $1 billion in damages to the families of eight Sandy Hook shooting victims and a law enforcement first responder to compensate them for a decade of abuse from people who believe his lies that the 2012 elementary school massacre was a hoax.

The astonishing $965 million compensatory damages verdict, after 3 ½ weeks of gripping accounts of harassment from Jones and his followers, could increase in the coming days with the addition of punitive damages, which are awarded for particularly outrageous and willful conduct.

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Fifteen people sued Jones — parents, spouses and siblings of the 20 first graders and six educators murdered when a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown with an assault rifle, and an FBI agent who rushed to the scene on Dec. 14, 2012. Within hours of the murders, as relatives came to grips with their losses, Jones began what would become years of bombastic broadcasts to an audience of millions claiming that the relatives were actors in a phony production staged to win support for gun control.

Parents of the murdered children testified that, as a result Jones’ broadcasts, threats began so quickly and grew so serious that, within days, authorities were taking security measures to protect mourners at their children’s’ funerals. Lawyers for the families presented the jury with evidence that the harassment continued through the trial.

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The relatives sat calmly for the most part in the courtroom gallery as the court clerk read, and reread the 17-page verdict form. Robert Parker, whose daughter Emilie was one of the victims and who was the target of particularly relentless and vitriolic attacks by Jones, bowed his head and wept. Some family members hugged afterwards.

Later, outside the courthouse, Parker said he was proud that “we were able to accomplish this, just to simply tell the truth.”

Jones was not present, but he streamed the reading of the verdicts during the broadcast of his Infowars program and again mocked the relatives.

“Blah, blah, blah,” Jones said. “You get a million, you get $100 million” in response to the jury’s findings for each family member.

It was the second big verdict against Jones for spreading lies and harassing relatives of Sandy Hook victims. In August, a jury in Texas awarded nearly $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the parents of a murdered first grader who sued Jones there. A third suit is pending in Texas.

The verdicts follow an emotional and, at times, contentious trial. All the relatives testified, often in tears, about being threatened and tormented by people who subscribe to Jones’ bizarre theory that Sandy Hook parents and their murdered children were actors in a hoax staged to win support for outlawing gun ownership in the U.S.

Erica Lafferty, daughter of Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, speaks to the media after jurors returned a $965 million dollar judgement in the defamation trial against Alex Jones, in Waterbury, Conn, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

The relatives described being confronted by complete strangers, at their homes, at shopping malls and while walking along a city street 3,000 miles from Newtown. All said they were the targets of what one parent called a full-on assault on social media. The daughter of the murdered Sandy Hook Elementary School principal said she received rape threats in the mail. Another parent said a Sandy Hook denier threated to dig up his son’s grave to prove he had not been killed.

Jones was as antagonistic when testifying inside the courthouse and outside at impromptu press conferences as he was while deriding the verdicts on his broadcast Wednesday. In court, called as a witness by the families, he said he had been mistaken about Sandy Hook, had apologized and was tired of doing so.

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The testimony ended in a shouting match when Christopher Mattei, a lawyer pressing the families’ suit, gestured toward the relatives sitting in a group in the courtroom gallery and accused Jones of putting “a target” on their backs. Jones fired back, “Is this a struggle session? Are we in China? I’ve already said I’m sorry, and I’m done saying I’m sorry.”

In both his opening and closing statements, Mattei told jurors they had the power to return a verdict that stops Jones.

“He’s going on 10 years of defaming these families, and it’s not stopping,” Mattei told the jury in his closing. “This is their one chance, and your one chance … to render a verdict on just how much devastation Alex Jones has caused.”

Mattei did not suggest a damage award, but presented the jury with a formula for reaching one: Determine fair compensation for a person harmed by a single lie, told once. Then multiply that sum by 550 million, a figure that an expert trial witness for the families said reflects Jones’ massive audience reach across his broadcast, internet and social media platforms.

“You may say that is astronomical,” Mattei said. “It is. It is. It is exactly what Alex Jones did. He built a lie machine to push this stuff out. He built a lie machine. … But you know something, that’s not enough.”

Jones’ lawyer, Norm Pattis, conceded that his client’s conspiracy theories — the school shooting was a hoax and the grieving parents were actors — are false and despicable, but they are what Jones or guests on his broadcast believed when they made them. Pattis accused lawyers for the families of appealing to jurors’ emotions by doing what they accuse Jones of — fomenting anger.

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“Alex invented fear,” Pattis said in his closing argument. “Alex invented anger. Alex invented what is wrong with this world. Kill Alex and we’ll all live happily ever after. … The angrier you get the more money they will get. You are sort of like a pinball machine: Put enough money in and pull the lever and maybe all that money will pop out.”

Jones declined to testify in his defense and Pattis chose not to put on any defense at all. Outside on the courthouse sidewalk, Jones called the trial a “kangaroo court” and Judge Barbara Bellis a “tyrant.”

Because of a rare default ruling by Bellis a year ago, the defamation trial was actually a hearing on damages. The default punished Jones for failing to comply with court orders to disclose business records and found in favor of the families on the central point of their suit — that Jones’ hoax broadcasts were outrageous lies and responsible for a decade of harassment and anguish.

The default prevented Jones from presenting a defense and limited what he could argue to minimize damages. As a result, the only question before the jury was what Jones owes.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones takes the witness stand to testify at the Sandy Hook defamation damages trial at Connecticut Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. Jones was found liable last year by default for damages to plaintiffs without a trial, as punishment for what the judge called his repeated failures to turn over documents to their lawyers. The six-member jury is now deciding how much Jones and Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, should pay the families for defaming them and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. (Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP, Pool)

Pattis said he expects Jones to appeal.

“I think that it was an unprecedented sort of situation to be in with a default judgment and evidentiary rulings that frankly, in my view, are indefensible,” Pattis said. “So I think that Jones has excellent prospects on appeal and I urge him to take the appeal.”

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He said the $965 million in compensatory damages could increase by one-half or more when punitive damages are calculated.

“I think they went out to make a statement and they did,” Pattis said. “There just isn’t that kind of money out there and they will learn that.”

There are two kinds of punitive damages that apply under Connecticut law against Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems. Bellis is responsible for deciding in both cases after hearing arguments from the lawyers next month

The six-person jury found that the relatives are entitled to punitive damages in the form of attorney fees and the costs of preparing and pressing the suits. That figure could reach well into the millions of dollars in a case that has been litigated by multiple lawyers over four years in state, federal and U.S. bankruptcy courts in Connecticut and Texas. Bellis will decide on the amount.

The jury also found that Jones and Free Speech Systems violated Connecticut’s unfair trade practices law because his broadcast, internet and retail sales businesses drove profit with broadcasts that intentionally — and falsely — vilified the families. The families presented evidence suggesting that Jones broadcast hoax lies because he knew his Sandy Hook hoax programming caused spikes in audience numbers and in sales at his retail sites where he sold nutritional supplements and survivalist gear.

State law sets no limit on damages awarded under the unfair trade practices act.

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Jones’ legal maneuvering in bankruptcy courts in Connecticut and Texas during the run-up to the trial suggests he may claim he is unable to pay a substantial verdict. His lawyers have said he could not afford anything over $10 million. His company, Free Speech Systems, has filed for bankruptcy protection. But lawyers for the Sandy Hook families have accused Jones of diverting millions of dollars a week since default rulings in Connecticut and Texas went against him. And an expert in the Texas case said Jones and Free Speech Systems are worth more than $200 million.

The jury’s compensatory awards to the individual plaintiffs ranged from $28.8 million to $120 million.

“This is a moment years in the making,” said Erica Lafferty, daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung. “And in this moment, like in every big moment since the shooting, I wish I could just call my mom and tell her about it.”

The heart of the families’ case at the Connecticut trial was a succession of painfully emotional accounts of their suffering at the hands of mostly anonymous tormentors who confronted them on streets, left messages on their cars or showed up at their homes.

Among them was Parker and his wife Alissa. Jones seized on a video clip of Parker mourning his daughter’s murder, making it a regular prop on his hoax broadcasts. Jones claimed Parker had to have been acting the part of bereaved parent, because he smiled nervously and consulted notes as he approached the television cameras.

Parker did not know at the time he was the first of the parents to speak to reporters outside his church. And he thought he would be facing only a single television camera from Utah, where he and his wife grew up and their families lived. Instead he was stunned as he appeared before an army of television lights. He testified his smile was in response to a word of encouragement from his father.

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Alissa Parker said Jones twisted a small clip of the video and it led to “a full-on assault” by his audience.

“They called Emilie a whore,” Alissa Parker said. “Just the most horrific things you could ever even imagine. Just calling Robbie a liar, and that we’re going to burn in hell for what we’ve done.”

Parker testified that minutes before their daughter’s funeral he discovered his wife hiding, overcome in a coat closet.

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“She was curled up, just sobbing,” he testified, “and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ ”

A year after the school shooting, Parker said he quit his job as a physician’s assistant at Danbury Hospital and moved 3,000 miles west to Washington in hopes that the harassment would decrease with distance from Newtown. He said he learned he was wrong within months of the move as he walked along a street in Seattle while attending a charity event.

Parker said he was confronted by a man who recognized him from the video and began screaming curses.

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“The guy just kept following me and he was just in my ear the whole time: ‘Emilie’s alive, isn’t she? She’s alive, huh? Son of a (expletive), she’s alive.’ And I just kept walking and walking. People are staring at us and he just won’t shut up,” he said.

The lawyers representing the families of the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary speak to the media after jurors returned a $965 million dollar judgement in the defamation trial against Alex Jones, in Waterbury, Conn, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

“I’m just trying to hold it in. For years, I’ve been dealing with this. And I never had the chance to tell anybody how I felt or what I thought,” Parker testified. “I retreated every single time something happened to us. I put another layer of camouflage on us. Nobody can know where we are. And I retreated and I retreated.

“And now this guy was in my face and he wouldn’t leave me alone. And he said Emilie’s name one more time. I turned around and I looked at him and, I’m paraphrasing at this point, and I said, ‘How dare you. You’re talking about my daughter. She was killed. Who do you think you are? How do you sleep at night?’ “

Reporter Taylor Hartz contributed to this story.

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