Try to imagine the horror of your six-year-old son gunned down at school. Think about what you would feel as you sat in a local firehouse and waited for hours to learn of your child’s fate. Try to envision holding the body of your son, a bullet in his head. Then imagine what it would be like, as you are grieving, to have lies spread about your child’s murder — that the shooting never happened, that it was an elaborate hoax and you were an actor playing a role in a government plot to advance gun control. And think what it would be like to be hounded, harassed and threatened by zealots pushing unhinged conspiracy theories.
That Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose six-year-old son Jesse was one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting 10 years ago, endured all that — the unimaginable and the unspeakable — makes all the more remarkable their resolve in trying to ensure no other parent has to suffer from the added torment of malicious lies. The couple, along with several other families, sued conspiracy theorist and media provocateur Alex Jones for using his online platform and broadcast to spread the lies to millions of people worldwide. On Thursday, a jury in Austin awarded Jesse’s parents $4.1 million in compensatory damages; on Friday, the jury added $45.2 million in punitive damages. Mr. Jones already had been found liable for defamation by courts in Texas and Connecticut, which issued rare default judgments for his failure to respond to court orders and turn over documents.
Testimony during the civil trial left no doubt of Mr. Jones’s mendacity. During harsh cross-examination of Mr. Jones on Wednesday, a lawyer for the Sandy Hook parents revealed that Mr. Jones’s lawyer had accidentally sent the plaintiff’s counsel two years of data from Mr. Jones’s cellphone, including emails and text messages that showed Mr. Jones had apparently perjured himself during sworn testimony. “This is your 'Perry Mason' moment,” Mr. Jones responded dismissively. No, Mr. Jones, this is not made-up TV drama and no one is entertained. “Jesse was real. I’m a real mom,” said Ms. Lewis in her heart-wrenching testimony. She challenged Mr. Jones to think about how his lying and fear-mongering have poisoned U.S. politics and distorted reality for the hundreds of thousands of people who follow him. In addition to his Sandy Hook lies, Mr. Jones has peddled fantasies about 9/11 and covid-19.
The $49.3 million is far less than the $150 million sought by the parents, but much more than the $8 recommended by Mr. Jones. The truth is that no amount of money can compensate for what Mr. Heslin described to the jury as the “living hell” that has been made of their lives. What is important is that Mr. Jones has been called to account, in an indictment of today’s culture in which the spread of misinformation is tolerated and even encouraged. “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Mark Bankston, the parents’ lawyer, told the jury in his opening statement. This is a case about creating change. The $49.3 million is the first of possible jury awards; we hope that puts on notice others who knowingly traffic in lies to advance their political and financial interests.