| Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas – The parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis are seeking two awards of $75 million – $1 for every American duped by Austin-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ portrayal of the death of their son and 25 others at Sandy Hook Elementary School as a hoax, their lawyer announced Tuesday.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis sat about 15 feet from Jones in a Travis County courtroom as a jury trial got underway Tuesday to determine how much money Jones will have to pay them for defamation and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
The parents’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, used his opening statement to the jury to accuse Jones of weaving a pattern of lies that inspired his followers to contact Jesse’s parents at home, accost them in public, harass them online and by phone, and threaten their lives.
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“For 10 years, Mr. Jones has robbed Neil and Scarlett of the time they needed to heal for the violent death of their son Jesse,” Bankston said.
Jones’ campaign made Jesse’s death ugly, Bankston said. Now, every time his parents think about their son, they also have to “think about this horrible man, this disgusting series of horrible lies that will be forever tied to their son’s death.”
The trial, expected to continue into the first week of August, will determine how much money Jones will have to pay Jesse’s parents for portraying them as liars and actors who conspired with government efforts to use the “faked” attack to justify confiscating firearms.
Jones, who has argued that the lawsuits are part of a wider attempt by leftists and other opponents to silence his free-speech rights, arrived at the courthouse with silver tape over his mouth bearing the phrase “Save the 1st.”
The tape was off when he entered the courtroom Tuesday morning, but during the trial’s first break Jones spoke to reporters and cameras in a hallway outside the courtroom, loudly proclaiming that the proceedings were a kangaroo court, a political action, a witch hunt, a show trial and total warfare.
State District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble called lawyers from both sides back into court and, without jurors present, banned any discussion of the case outside of court that could be overheard by jurors.
“We are not going to have that again,” she said.
With jurors back in court, Jones’ lawyer, Andino Reynal, admitted that Jones was wrong with his statements about Sandy Hook but said the InfoWars host was duped by others who told a convincing tale about the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., being a hoax.
“There was a time that Alex was taken in,” Reynal said. “We are not hiding that.”
Reynal added, however, that Jones had the right to raise the questions he did, adding that Jones has already been punished for those statements after being canceled from posting on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Reynal directed his ire at Bankston, deriding him as a “personal injury lawyer” engaged in a cynical attempt to enrich himself “while silencing a political opponent and limiting every American’s right to watch and choose what to listen to.”
Lawyers learn one important rule, he told jurors: “Don’t lie to the jury if you hope to get the verdict that you requested. What we heard (in Bankston’s opening) was a conspiracy of lies.”
But Bankston told jurors that he will be asking for two awards – $75 million for damaging the parents’ reputation and another $75 million for emotional distress. That’s even before jurors begin the second phase of the trial, when they will hear testimony about Jones’ net worth before assessing punitive damages.
Bankston said the $75 million figure represents $1 for every American who was duped by Jones’ lies, according to a poll that found 24% of Americans believe the Sandy Hook shooting was staged or might have been. Jones used his highly popular shows to explode the Sandy Hook myth, expanding its reach beyond the cranks and extremists populating dark corners of the internet, Bankston said.
Opening statements Tuesday morning raised the curtain on the first of three trials – two in Austin, one in Connecticut – that will determine how much Jones will have to pay for defamation and emotional distress caused when Jones and others in his Austin-based InfoWars media system repeatedly portrayed the mass shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators, as a hoax meant to justify a government crackdown on gun rights.
Last year, Jones was found – without a trial – to have defamed both sets of parents when state District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble issued a rarely granted default judgment against Jones, saying his pattern of bad faith in withholding essential information from pretrial discovery improperly imperiled the families’ cases. That means jurors in both Austin cases will be asked to determine the size of damage awards to be assessed against Jones and his main company, Free Speech Systems.
The second trial in Austin with the parents of another 6-year-old first-grader, and another in Connecticut with families of eight Sandy Hook victims, are currently set for September.