Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones took the stand Thursday at his defamation trial in Connecticut as he tried to limit the damages he must pay for promoting the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax.
More than a dozen family members of some of the 20 children and six educators killed in the shooting also showed up to observe his testimony in Waterbury Superior Court, about 32 kilometres from Newtown, where the shooting occurred.
One of the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Christopher Mattei, showed a video from Jones’ Infowars web show calling the mass shooting “phoney as a three-dollar bill” and calling the parents of the victims “crisis actors.”
“Mr. Jones, if someone were to falsely claim that a group of families who had lost loved ones were actors and had faked the deaths of their loved ones, that would be a horrible thing to say, correct?” Mattei asked Jones before showing the video.
“In the context, it could be, yes,” Jones replied.
Jones had portrayed the Sandy Hook shooting as staged by actors as part of gun control efforts.
He held a news conference Wednesday outside the courthouse, bashing the proceedings — as he has on his Infowars show — as a “travesty of justice.” He made similar comments on his way into the courthouse Thursday, indicating he may invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and not answer some questions.
“This is not really a trial,” he said. “This is a show trial, a literal kangaroo court.”
Judge Barbara Bellis last year found Jones liable by default for damages to plaintiffs without a trial, as punishment for what she called his repeated failures to turn over documents to their lawyers. The six-member jury only will be deciding how much Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of Infowars, should pay the families for defaming them and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
Bellis began the day going over with Jones the topics he cannot testify about. Those included free speech rights, the Sandy Hook families’ $73 million US settlement earlier this year with gun-maker Remington — the company that made the Bushmaster rifle used to kill the victims at Sandy Hook — or the percentage of Jones’s shows that discussed Sandy Hook.
“This is not the appropriate forum for you to offer that testimony,” Bellis said. Jones indicated that he understood.
Bellis has said in court she was prepared to handle any incendiary testimony from Jones, with contempt of court proceedings if necessary.
But Thursday’s early testimony began with Jones agreeing his website had depicted Bellis as a “tyrant” online this week, with a doctored picture featuring lasers coming from her eyes. Within the first hour, there were frequent interruptions in testimony and the jury was excused twice as the respective legal teams sparred over what could be said in open court.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers asked Jones whether he believed Bellis was a tyrant and whether he calls a lot of people tyrants.
“Only when they act like it,” he said.
Relatives testify to massacre, misinformation toll
Several victims’ relatives, meanwhile, have given emotional testimony during the trial about being traumatized by people calling the shooting fake, including confrontations at their homes and in public, and messages including death and rape threats.
The plaintiffs include an FBI agent who responded to the shooting, and relatives of eight of the victims.
Testimony earlier in the week has focused on website analytics data run by Infowars employees showing how its sales of dietary supplements, food, clothing and other items spiked around the time Jones talked about the Sandy Hook shooting.
Evidence, including internal Infowars emails and depositions, also shows dissension within the company about pushing the hoax lies.
Jones’s lawyer Norman Pattis is arguing that any damages should be limited and accused the victims’ relatives of exaggerating the harm the lies caused them. Relatives of those killed have testified that they continue to fear for their safety because of what the hoax believers have done and might do.
Jennifer Hensel, whose six-year-old daughter Avielle Richman was among the slain, testified Wednesday that she still monitors her surroundings, even checking the back seat of her car, for safety reasons. She said she is trying to shield her two children, ages seven and five, from the hoax lies. A juror cried during her testimony.
“They’re so young,” she said of her children. “Their innocence is so beautiful right now. And at some point there are a horde of people out there who could hurt them.”
Costly Texas verdict
Jones was found liable by default in two similar lawsuits over the hoax lies in his hometown of Austin, Texas, where a jury in one of the trials ordered Jones last month to pay nearly $50 million in damages to the parents of one of the children killed, although state laws may cap the damages he ultimately pays.
A third trial in Texas is expected to begin near the end of the year.
Jones has acknowledged raising conspiracy claims about other mass tragedies, from the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings to the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla. He issued an on-air apology in 2017 for promoting the hoax that a Washington restaurant was a child trafficking site, the so-called Pizzagate case that led to a disturbing shooting incident.
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Removed from social media platforms
Jones on his show has also waded into politics. He promoted stolen election claims after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and was in Washington, D.C., ahead of the riot at the Capitol.
“I don’t know how this is all going to end, but if they want to fight, they better believe they’ve got one,” Jones said at a rally in Washington on Jan. 5, per a widely shared video.
Then-candidate Trump said at the end of a 2015 appearance on Jones’s show, “I just want to finish by saying your reputation is amazing.”
Since then, most major social media companies have removed Jones’s program, citing violations of platform rules.