On numerous occasions, radio host and conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones has used his InfoWars show to make the false and baseless claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting was fake. Jones took the stand Wednesday at a damages trial in a defamation case in which the parents of a child who died in a school massacre are seeking $150 million in damages.
The Texas trial, which began on July 25, is one of three similar cases against Jones over his claims about the Sandy Hook massacre in Newton, Connecticut. Jones was found guilty of defamation in each case, and the trials are now deciding how much he will pay in damages.
On Wednesday, Jones faced questions from the plaintiff’s attorney and his defense team, as well as the jury. In response to questions from defense attorney Andino Renal, Jones said he understands it’s irresponsible to believe a mass shooting is fake, adding that it’s “100% real.”
Mark Bankston, an attorney for the Sandy Hook parents, presented a segment from Jones’ InfoWars show that aired last week that made false claims on Judge Maya Guerra Gamble. Bankston also showed another clip from InfoWars, where Jones called the jury “extremely blue collar” and said they didn’t know what planet they were on.
Then, in a move that seemed to surprise Jones, Bankston discovered that the defense had accidentally sent it to him entire texting history on Jones’ phone. This evidence contradicted Jones’ sworn testimony that he did not have the Sandy Hook texts. The is reportedly preparing to request those texts and emails, Rolling Stone reported Wednesday.
After neither the prosecution nor the defense had any more questions, the jury wrote out questions for Jones to read to the judge. One juror asked what compensation Jones would consider appropriate for the parents. He said any amount over $2 million would “sunk” us. Earlier in the prosecutor’s questions, Jones confirmed that at one point his show was making $800,000 a day.
Both sides wrapped up their case on Wednesday, with plans to make closing arguments in the late afternoon.
In this trial, parents Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis are seeking $150 million in damages not only for emotional harm caused by false claims that the massacre was a “false flag” attack designed to push for stricter gun control laws, but also for death threats from people who they believe in the discredited conspiracy theory espoused by Jones.
“I can’t even describe the last nine and a half years, the hell that I and others have had to endure because of the recklessness and negligence of Alex Jones,” Heslin said in court Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.
At the heart of the defamation trial are comments Heslin made in 2017 during a television interview with broadcaster Megyn Kelly and how InfoWars interpreted his statements to fit its own narrative. Recalling the Sandy Hook shooting, Heslin said of his 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, “I was holding my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Shortly after the interview aired, InfoWars host Owen Shroyer claimed without evidence that the timeline of events made it “impossible” that she was cradling her child.
Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing legal action.
Who is Jones and what is Sandy Hook?
Alex Jones, 48, is an extremist, avid conspiracy theorist and media personality, best known for his radio and YouTube show InfoWars. Jones, based in Austin, Texas, has pushed conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the false idea that a Washington, D.C. pizzeria was involved in a child and sex trafficking ring sponsored by high-ranking Democrats and, more recently, the debunked claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Jones was found to have helped fund pro-Trump rallies on January 5 and 6, 2021, which precipitated the attack on the US Capitol.
A recurring theme of Jones’ claims is the concept of a “false flag” operation — an event staged to provoke political action. Jones said, without evidence, that the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a false flag operation “to try to bring down Trump.” Jones falsely accused Jason Kessler, who organized a rally of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, of being a federal agent. A local resident, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man drove his car into a group of counter-protesters.
In the Sandy Hook massacre, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 27 people. Lanza first shot and killed his mother at home, then moved on to the school where he massacred 20 children and six adult staff members before killing himself.
Amidst the unusual conspiracies in which Jones engages, he enjoys a large and influential audience. Former President Donald Trump appeared on his show in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate. The YouTube channel for InfoWars had 2 million subscribers before it was launched from the platform in 2018 (in April,although the reasons for this may have to do with current libel suits.)
InfoWars generated more than $165 million in revenue over a three-year period, InfoWars producer Daria Karpova said in court on July 29. Much of that money was through products sold on his website, including health supplements and survival gear.
What did Jones say about Sandy Hook?
Of all the extreme conspiracy theories espoused by Jones, the claim that Sandy Hook was a “hoax” is the most infamous. Jones at one point claimed the massacre was a false flag operation by the Obama administration, designed to speed up stricter gun laws.
“My guess is, with the timing and everything that happened, this was staged,” Jones said on the day of the massacre. He compared the shooting to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 plan to seize total power by burning down the German parliament and declaring martial law. “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag? To take control,” he said on the show. “Why do governments stage these things? To get our guns!”
Jones began to question the legitimacy of the parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook. Before speaking to the media about his daughter’s death the day after the shooting, grieving Robbie Parker was seen holding a folded sheet of paper. Jones claimed without evidence that the paper was evidence of a conspiracy involving the media or the government.
Jones later falsely claimed on InfoWars that several parents laughed before giving media interviews where they immediately burst into tears.
Key to Jones’ defamation case are statements made on Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly in 2017 and on a subsequent episode of InfoWars.
“I lost my son, I buried my son, I held my son with a bullet hole in his head,” Heslin said of his freshman who was killed in the shooting. InfoWars host Owen Shroyer implied that Heslin made up some or all of the story.
Testifying in court on July 28 and 29, Shroyer admitted he did not properly fact-check the report that cited his comments about Heslin.
Why are Sandy Hook parents getting death threats?
Several parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre have reported constant abuse and death threats from people who falsely believe they were the perpetrators of the staged event.
“Alex lit the flame that started the fire,” Heslin said in court Tuesday. “Other people brought wood to add.”
One such perpetrator was a 57-year-old woman who was jailed in 2017 for sending a voicemail to a grieving parent that read: “You’re going to die, your death is coming soon.” Another man is in jail for approaching the sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed in the massacre, and falsely and “furiously accused” that Sandy Hook never happened and that Soto “never existed.”
In testimony Tuesday, Heslin said he suffered abuse online and on the street, and that his home and car had been shot at.
“My life is in danger,” he told the jury. “I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.”
Lenny Pozner, another father of a Sandy Hook victim, told Now This News in 2018 that his family had moved seven times in the previous six years due to safety concerns.
“Alex Jones is like [WWE] news,” said Posner, who won a defamation lawsuit against Jones last year. “Some people enjoy it, they can suspend their disbelief and enjoy what they hear. Some people look at it and think it’s real.”
Jones defended himself by saying he never actively incited violence. “I never said you go to people’s houses,” Jones said at the 2019 Joe Rogan Experience.
What is at stake in a defamation trial?
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struggled with disinformation, as they find it difficult to strike a balance between preserving free speech and curbing harmful misinformation. Jones was a central figure in this fight, among the first high-profile accounts.
Jones’ ongoing legal battles will determine whether US courts are an effective means of recourse for victims of harmful misinformation. “Speech is free, but you have to pay for lies,” Heslin and Lewis’ attorney Mark Bankston told the jury in his opening statement.
For his part, Jones tried to reframe the trial as a free speech debate. When he arrived in court on July 26, he came with tape over his mouth that had the phrase “save the 1st” written on it, in reference to the First Amendment.
“If questioning public events and free speech are banned because it might hurt someone’s feelings, we are no longer in America,” Jones said in a statement last month.
The First Amendment, however, deals with government efforts to restrict speech. It does not apply to individuals or businesses, and defamation cases by definition involve damages caused by false or malicious statements.
Jones went on to broadcast episodes of InfoWars, where he denounced the case as a “show trial” and a “distraction”.