WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — The nearly $1 billion verdict against Alex Jones for spreading false conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre brought long-sought relief to family members and hopes the dazzling figure would stop others from broadcasting falsehoods.
But Jones has shown no signs of quelling his roar — a headline on his website blared Thursday that the “show trial verdict signals the death of free speech.” And lawyers say it’s not certain that family members who lost loved ones in the mass shooting will see the full amount after promised appeals and bankruptcy proceedings.
“Every plaintiff’s attorney knows from often bitter experiences that it’s usually easier to get a judgment than it is to enforce it,” said John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University.
So while the judgement can be a milestone, it is not an end point.
Experts say the Sandy Hook families will likely face a long battle as they try to collect the $965 million awarded Wednesday by a jury in Connecticut and a separate $49 Million Judgment from a Texas jury in August.
Here’s a look at some of the issues raised by the judgment.
WHAT IS THE MATTER?
After 26 people were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, Jones made a false conspiracy theory the focus of his programming on his flagship Infowars show.
He promoted a theory that the shooting was a hoax, staged by actors, and that no children died – all in an effort to increase gun control. His shows attracted legions of followers, some of whom spent years harassing the victims’ parents and siblings, as well as an FBI agent who had responded to the school.
Jones was found default liable in multiple defamation lawsuits after judges ruled that he and his attorneys falsely withheld information and documents from the plaintiffs.
Lawsuits were held in Texas and Connecticut to determine how much he owed the families for lying about them. Jones faces a third trial in Texas, in a lawsuit filed by the parents of another child killed in the shooting.
DOES ALEX JONES HAVE $1 BILLION?
Jones has maintained that he does not have the kind of money sought by the relatives who are suing him. Jones has repeatedly said he doesn’t even have $2 million to his name.
“When the reality sets in that they won’t silence me and there’s no money, it’s all an exercise in futility,” Jones said during the trial outside the Connecticut courthouse. “So whatever they do here, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.”
Another image was presented at the Texas trial.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business executives outlining the $800,000 gross income for one day from selling vitamin supplements and other products through his website. Jones called it a record sales day. Also, a forensic economist testified that Jones and his media company, Free Speech Systems, have combined assets as high as $270 million.
“You can’t invent money. If $270 million is the max, you’re not going to get more than that, at least without finding new sources that haven’t been discovered yet,” Coffee said.
Russ Horton, a Texas attorney, said dramatically large civil sentences are often reduced on appeal. But he said even if the Connecticut sentence is reduced, it will likely be disastrous for Jones.
“This is a judgment that is very likely to exceed his net worth, but it comes down to it,” Horton said, pointing to the uncertainty over his Jones’ assets.
IS BANKRUPTCY A BARRIRE?
Complicating matters is the fact that Jones is seeking bankruptcy protection for his company.
Free Speech Systems, the parent company of Infowars, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. Jones told a court that his company had estimated assets at $50,000 or less and estimated liabilities at $1 million to $10 million. He said at the time that he was “totally at the maximum” financially.
The Sandy Hook families have alleged in bankruptcy files that after filing their defamation lawsuits, Jones began “diverting assets” from Free Speech Systems, totaling more than $60 million in 2021 and 2022. They say Jones also received an annual salary of $1.4 million from the company at a time when he claimed it was operating at a net loss.
Horton said the bankruptcy of Jones’ company will likely complicate and provoke the Sandy Hook families’ efforts to collect their sentences. The verdicts against Jones in person can still be collected, he said, but their size could force him to file for individual bankruptcy.
But bankruptcy doesn’t keep Jones off the hook.
“Bankruptcy isn’t where you want to be if you’re hiding assets or behaving badly,” Horton says.
Last month, Houston-based bankruptcy judge Christopher Lopez fired Jones’ attorney and chief restructuring officer — over a lack of transparency by his firm — and authorized a Justice Department trustee to hire attorneys to investigate Free Speech Systems.
On Wednesday, Lopez approved a new restructuring officer to handle Jones’ company and appointed another judge as mediator to resolve disputes in the federal case.
William Sherlach, whose wife Mary Sherlach was murdered in Sandy Hook, told reporters after the verdict that “people like Alex Jones will have to reconsider what they say.”
On his show Thursday, Jones continued to attack his critics, saying “we have two years of appeals.” Although Jones has admitted in recent years that the shooting took place, he claims the families are being used to push through a gun control and anti-free speech agenda.
“They’re trying to shut me down. It’s not happening,” he said Thursday.
The verdict has been likened to pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s privacy invasion lawsuit against the gossip blog Gawker, which ultimately saw the company out of business.
But it’s not clear whether the verdict would have a chilling effect on others who broadcast false and defamatory statements, said Thomas Henthoff, a Washington-based First Amendment attorney who has represented major media companies.
It can take years or even decades to collect verdicts, Henthoff said, and Jones’ cases were outliers because he had default sentences against him, meaning he never staged a merit defense.
“There are a lot of people who make money expressing extreme views, and I would hesitate to think that a grand jury’s monetary verdict would in itself cause them to change course,” Henthoff said.
The Connecticut judge will soon decide the amounts of the punitive damages, which will be added to the $965 million. Jones can then formally appeal.
Christopher Mattei, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told MSNBC after the verdict that they were prepared for the long haul.
“Whatever property he has,” Mattei said, “these families will pursue him to arrest him and enforce every penny of this sentence against him.”
Hill reported from Albany NY Bleiberg contributed from Dallas.
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