A lawyer for families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting told a Connecticut jury on Tuesday that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones would never stop profiting from destructive falsehoods unless he pays for his lies about the massacre.
The lawyer, Christopher Mattei, made his assessment during opening statements on Tuesday, nearly a decade after 20 children and six staff members were killed on December 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In Jones’ second trial related to the massacre, jurors will decide how much in damages he owes 13 family members of victims, as well as one FBI agent, for claiming the massacre was a hoax.
Jones’ trial in a Waterbury, Connecticut, state court about 32 kilometers from Newtown, comes one month after a jury in Austin, Texas, awarded two parents $49.3 million in a similar case.
Mattei told jurors it was important to stop Jones and his right-wing Infowars brand from “preying on people who are helpless” and encouraging years of harassment from Jones’ followers.
“They knew the harassment was happening, but the lies were too profitable,” Mattei said.
He said Infowars, which is based in Austin, drew millions of followers with bogus claims about Sandy Hook, and made as much as $800,000 a day selling supplements, doomsday supplies and other products.
Jones’ lawyer, Norman Pattis, countered during his opening statement that the families were “exaggerating their harm for political reasons” and viewing a big damages award as a “weapon” to silence Infowars.
“We’re going to ask you to disarm them,” Pattis told jurors.
Jones did not attend the start of the trial, which is expected to last five weeks, but Pattis said he will testify.
The plaintiffs sued Jones and Infowars parent Free Speech Systems LLC in 2018.
They said the harassment was conducted by people who believed Jones’ false claims that the government staged the Sandy Hook shooting with crisis actors as a pretext for seizing guns, and that the families faked their children’s deaths.
Jones has since acknowledged that the shooting took place.
Some families in the gallery clasped each other’s hands tightly and fought back tears as the first plaintiff to testify, FBI agent Bill Aldenberg, described the shooting scene and death threats that families received as they prepared for burials.
“It overwhelms your senses. It’s horrible,” he said.
Another plaintiff, Carlee Soto Parisi, tearfully described her sister’s death at Sandy Hook and the subsequent deluge of social media posts saying that she was a crisis actor.
“It’s hurtful. It’s devastating. It’s crippling. You can’t breathe properly,” she said.
Adam Lanza, the gunman, used a Remington Bushmaster rifle as he shot his way into the school, after shooting his mother to death at home. The massacre ended when Lanza killed himself as he heard approaching police sirens.
Jurors are required solely to determine how much Jones and Free Speech Systems must pay for spreading lies about the massacre.
A judge issued a default judgment in the case in November after Jones failed to comply with court orders.
Free Speech Systems filed for bankruptcy in July. That would typically shield the company from lawsuits, but it agreed to face trial in August.
In a Tuesday hearing in the bankruptcy case, a judge rejected Free Speech Systems’ request to reimburse Jones for travel expenses and security detail.
The $49.3 million award in Austin could be reduced substantially because it consists mostly of non-economic damages intended to punish Jones for his conduct.
A lawyer for Jones has said he will seek to reduce the $45.2 million punitive damages component to $1.5 million, citing a Texas law imposing a cap. Lawyers for the parents have said that the cap does not apply, and Jones should pay the full amount.(Reuters)
•PHOTO: Erica Lafferty-Garbatini, daughter of Sandy Hook