AMONG JESSE LEWIS’S last words was “RUN!” He shouted it during a pause in the shooting that took the six-year-old’s life, along with 19 other children and six adults, at his primary school in Sandy Hook, a small town in Connecticut, in 2012. Nine children who heard him yell “run” survived the shooting. Later that night, his father made his way into the medical examiner’s tent, where his son’s remains lay. According to “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth”, by Elizabeth Williamson, he cradled Jesse in his arms. The little boy’s rugby jersey was untucked, as it always was. A dime-size bullet hole punctured his head near the hairline. For his burial, his mother dressed him in warm clothes. She put his rubber ducks, his plastic army men and a plastic camouflage helmet into his coffin.
Within hours of the shooting Alex Jones, a bombastic right-wing conspiracy-spreader and creator of Infowars, a website, told his viewers: “This is staged.” He later said: “Why do governments stage these things? To get our guns!” For the next several years he continued to press the idea that the tragedy was a hoax, that the mass shooting was a “false flag” operation, and that the parents and children were “crisis actors”. He openly mocked the grieving parents.
Several of the victims’ families, who had been harassed and tormented for years by his viewers, sued Mr Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, in four separate lawsuits in Connecticut and Texas. He was found liable by default in all of them as he did not hand over documents, including financial statements, as ordered by the court. A trial in Austin, Texas, this week determined how much Mr Jones must pay Jesse’s parents.
Their testimony was gripping and heart-wrenching. Neil Heslin, Jesse’s father, said he did not know if Mr Jones originated the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, but he testified that it was Mr Jones who “lit the match and started the fire”, sharing and regularly repeating the madcap theories on his show. Mr Jones made his life a “living hell”, he said. Mr Jones’s actions amounted to “recklessness and negligence”. He testified that his life had been threatened. Indeed he and Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mother, have been placed under security during the trial. Ms Lewis during her testimony addressed Mr Jones directly: “Jesse was real. I am a real mom.” She found it incredible that “we have to implore you, not just implore you, punish you, to get you to stop lying.”
Even in court Mr Jones could not stick to the truth. The presiding judge had to scold him twice for violating his oath to tell the truth on the stand. The next day she had to remind him: “This is not your show.” Watching the judge admonish Mr Jones, who for years has been spewing conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook as well as the Oklahoma bombing of 1995 and the Parkland school shooting of 2018, was, as Charlie Warzel wrote in the Atlantic, “so cathartic”. While on the stand Mr Jones finally conceded that it was “absolutely irresponsible” to say Sandy Hook did not happen and that he believes the Sandy Hook shooting was “100% real”.
As stunning as that concession was, even more shocking was a revelation by the parents’ lawyer. He produced text messages sent from Mr Jones’s mobile phone showing that the conspiracy-monger withheld vital evidence in the defamation lawsuits. At the time Mr Jones had claimed he did not have any messages related to Sandy Hook. He repeated that assertion while under oath during the trial in Austin. His texts showed this was not true. Other texts contradicted his testimony, too. For instance, he testified that he lost millions of dollars after being kicked off several social-media and hosting platforms in 2018. His texts and emails show that his revenue rose. The revelations from the texts were like something from a film. Even Mr Jones likened it to a “Perry Mason moment” (“Perry Mason” was an American legal drama series in the 1950s and 1960s).
The Texan jury took just a day to come back with its decision. Mr Jones’s lawyer asked the jury to award the parents $8, a dollar for each of the compensation charges. The plaintiffs had asked for $150m. It was not about getting a lot of money for themselves. They hoped a big financial verdict might truly serve as a punishment for Mr Jones, and deter other conspiracy theorists. As the lawyer for Jesse’s parents said in his opening statement, “Speech is free, but you have to pay for your lies.” The jury ordered Mr Jones to pay $4.1m to Jesse’s parents, much less than they had hoped.
However, this is just the start of Mr Jones’s litigation problems. A second stage of the trial begins on August 5th to discuss punitive damages. Many expect these to be more substantial than the $4.1m awarded on August 4th. Mr Jones’s firm, Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy last month. This may affect the other Sandy Hook defamation cases set to begin next month. And perhaps most damaging, the plaintiffs’ lawyer said that he had been asked to turn over the two years of text messages from Mr Jones’s phone to the House January 6th committee, which is investigating the attack on the Capitol last year. Mr Jones was deposed by the committee in January. He has close ties to the leader of the Oath Keepers militia, an alleged conspirator of the attack.
The case comes just two months after another massacre at a school: in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered. That and other shootings were instrumental in getting the Senate to agree to the most sweeping gun-reform legislation in three decades. President Joe Biden signed the measures into law last month. Conspiracy theories may be even tougher to solve: they are insidious, and debunking them is hard.
Veronique De La Rosa, the mother of Noah Pozner, who also died on that terrible day in 2012, said in Ms Williamson’s Sandy Hook book that: “We have a thirty-thousand-foot view of the damage that lies and hoaxes can cause in a society.” She went on to say “The warping of the facts is having horrible consequences.” At last Mr Jones is facing some consequences himself. ■