AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The detective who led the investigation into the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School attack testified Tuesday that there are three types of people who deny it happened and harass families of the victims: the mentally ill, those who believed wrong or incomplete information, and those who knew the truth but twisted it for their own “power or money”.
Investigators placed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in the latter group.
“They were the most dangerous. That’s where we put Alex Jones,” Connecticut State Police Detective Daniel Jewiss told the jury on the first day of testimony in a trial in Texas to determine how much Jones, who hosts Infowars, owes for defaming the parents of one of the children who died in the Deadliest school shooting in American history.
“It’s absolutely horrifying the amount of trauma they’ve had to go through as a result of the loss of a loved one,” said Jewiss, who called supporting the families of Sandy Hook “the most honorable thing ” in which he has ever participated.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was killed in the attack on the school in Newtown, Connecticut, are seeking $150 million for the emotional distress and reputational damage they Jones caused them, and more money in punitive damages, their attorney, Mark Bankston, told the court during his opening statement as Jones watched, shaking his head at times.
Jones “lied and repeatedly attacked parents of murdered children” when he told his Infowars audience that the shooting was a hoax, Bankston said. He created a ‘massive campaign of lies’ and recruited ‘savage extremists from the fringes of the internet … who were as cruel as Mr. Jones wanted’ to the families of the 20 first graders and six educators who were killed , said the lawyer.
Jones tapped into the explosive popularity of Sandy Hook conspiracy stories that became an “obsession” with the website, even years after the shooting, said Bankston, who played video clips of Jones claiming on his show that the shooting was a hoax and ‘the whole thing was completely wrong. … It just didn’t happen.
Anticipating that Jones’ attorneys would argue that what Jones said about Sandy Hook was First Amendment-protected speech – Jones arrived at the courthouse taped over his mouth with the message ‘Save the 1st printed on it – Bankston told the jury: “It has nothing to do with the Constitution. Defamation is not protected by freedom of expression. … Speech is free, but lies are paid for.
During the defense’s opening remarks, Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal called Jones one of “the most polarizing figures in this country”, who made statements about Sandy Hook “that we don’t dispute. were not wrong”. But he said Jones had already been punished for those statements when he was launched from Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Twitter for violating their hate speech policies.
Jones was “already vacated” and lost millions of dollars, said Reynal, who called on the jury to limit damages to $1.
Reynal portrayed a talk show host who “tries to give another point of view” but was duped by some of his guests.
“Alex Jones was wrong to believe these people, but he didn’t do it out of spite. He did it because he believed in it. … He believed that a citizen had the right to participate in Infowars and speak about his issues,” Reynal said.
He also called the case important for free speech.
“I believe in his right to say it, and I believe in the right of every American to choose what they watch, listen to, and believe,” Reynal said.
Between opening statements from both sides, Jones walked out of the courtroom to rant at reporters, calling it a “kangaroo court” and a “show trial” that was an attack on the First Amendment. He did not return to the courtroom for the early afternoon of testimony, which included Infowars producer Daria Karpova taking the stand.
Jones’ media company assigned Karpova to testify about Infowars audience reach and part of the video produced by the website after the Sandy Hook shooting. The trial took a break for the rest of the day before she finished scheduled testimony.
The jury could deal Jones a major financial blow that would put his constellation of conspiracy peddling businesses in jeopardy. As well as being banned from major social media platforms, he claims to be millions of dollars in debt – a claim the plaintiffs deny.
The Texas court and another in Connecticut found Jones liable for defamation for its depiction of the Sandy Hook Massacre as a hoax involving actors aimed at increasing gun control. In both states, judges entered default judgments against Jones without a trial because he failed to respond to court orders and turn over documents.
In total, the families of eight Sandy Hook victims and one FBI agent who responded to the school are suing Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems.
Jones has since acknowledged that the shooting took place. During filing in aprilJones insisted he was not responsible for the suffering Sandy Hook’s parents say they endured as a result of the hoax plot, including death threats and harassment by Jones supporters.
Jones claimed in court records last year that he had a negative net worth of $20 million, but attorneys for the Sandy Hook families painted a different financial picture.
Court records show Jones’ Infowars store, which sells nutritional supplements and survival gear, grossed more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018. Jones also urged listeners to his Infowars program to donate silver.
The tribal began Monday in Austin, Texas — where Jones lives and airs his show — after months of delays. It also comes about two months after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 235 kilometers southwest of Austin. It was the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook.