By DAVE COLLINS, MICHAEL HILL and JAKE BLEIBERG, Associated Press
WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) – The nearly billion-dollar judgment against Alex Jones for spreading false conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has brought long-sought relief to family members and hope that this mind-boggling figure will deter others from spreading lies.
But Jones gave no sign of tempering his bluster – a headline on his website Thursday said the “show trial verdict signals the death of free speech”. And lawyers say it’s uncertain whether relatives who lost loved ones in the mass shooting will see the full dollar amount after promised appeals and bankruptcy proceedings.
“Every plaintiff’s attorney knows from often bitter experience that it’s usually easier to get a judgment than to enforce it,” said John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University.
So, while judgment may be a milestone, it is not an end point.
Experts say the Sandy Hook families likely face a long fight as they try to collect the $965 million awarded to them by a Connecticut jury on Wednesday and a separate $49 million judgment from a Texas jury in August.
Here is an overview of some of the issues raised by the judgment.
After 26 people were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, Jones made a false conspiracy theory a centerpiece of his programming on his flagship show Infowars.
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 broadcasts attracted legions of followers, some of whom later spent years harassing parents and siblings of victims, as well as an FBI agent who had responded to the school.
Jones was found liable by default in multiple defamation lawsuits after judges ruled he and his attorneys improperly withheld information and records from plaintiffs.
Trials were held in Texas and Connecticut to determine how much he owed the families for lying about them. Jones faces a third lawsuit in Texas, in a lawsuit brought by the parents of another child killed in the shooting.
DOES ALEX JONES HAVE 1 BILLION DOLLARS?
Jones maintained that he did not have the kind of money sought by the family members who were suing him. Jones has repeatedly said he doesn’t even have $2 million under his belt.
“When the reality sets in that they’re not going to shut me up and there’s no money, it’s all an exercise in futility,” Jones said outside the Connecticut courthouse during the trial. . “So whatever they do here is a Pyrrhic victory.”
A different picture was presented at the Texas trial.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business managers detailing a single day’s gross income of $800,000 from the sale of vitamin supplements and other products. through its website. Jones called it a record selling day. Additionally, a forensic economist said Jones and his media company, Free Speech Systems, have a combined net worth of up to $270 million.
“You can’t invent money. If $270 million is the max, you won’t get more than that, at least without finding new sources that haven’t been discovered yet,” Coffee said.
Russ Horton, a Texas attorney, said extremely large civil judgments are often overturned on appeal. But he said even if Connecticut’s verdict is reduced, it will likely be ruinous for Jones.
“It’s a judgment that’s very likely to top his net worth, but it’s going downhill,” Horton said, noting the uncertainty surrounding Jones’ assets.
To complicate matters, Jones files for 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 assets estimated at $50,000 or less and liabilities estimated at between $1 million and $10 million. He said at the time that he was “totally maxed out” financially.
The Sandy Hook families alleged in bankruptcy court filings that after bringing their defamation cases, Jones began “entertaining assets” out of Free Speech Systems, totaling in 2021 and 2022 more than $60 million. They say Jones also took 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 is likely to complicate and stretch the Sandy Hook families’ efforts to collect their judgments. Judgments against Jones personally can still be seen, he said, but their magnitude could compel him to file for individual bankruptcy.
But bankruptcy doesn’t get Jones off the hook.
“Bankruptcy isn’t where you want to be if you’re hiding assets or misbehaving,” Horton said.
Last month, Houston-based bankruptcy judge Christopher Lopez fired Jones’ attorney and chief restructuring officer – citing a lack of transparency at his company – and empowered a Justice Department-appointed trustee to hire lawyers to investigate Free Speech Systems.
On Wednesday, Lopez approved a new restructuring officer to manage Jones’ company and appointed another judge as a mediator to settle disputes in the federal case.
William Sherlach, whose wife Mary Sherlach was killed at Sandy Hook, told reporters after the judgment that “people like Alex Jones will have to rethink what they say.”
On his show Thursday, Jones continued to attack his critics and said “we’ve got two years of appeals.” Although Jones has in recent years acknowledged that the shooting happened, he says the families are being used to promote a gun control and anti-free speech agenda.
“They are trying to silence me. It doesn’t happen,” he said Thursday.
The judgment has been compared to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against gossip blog Gawker, which ultimately bankrupted the company.
But it’s unclear whether the judgment would have a chilling effect on others who spread false and defamatory statements, said Thomas Hentoff, a Washington-based First Amendment lawyer who has represented major media companies.
It can take years, even decades, to collect judgments, Hentoff said, and Jones’s cases were aberrant because he had default judgments against him, meaning he never organized a defense at the time. bottom.
“There are a lot of people who make money by expressing extreme views, and I would hesitate to think that the monetary judgment of a grand jury in itself would change their course,” Hentoff said.
The Connecticut judge will soon decide the amounts of the punitive damages, which will come in addition to the 965 million dollars. After that, Jones can formally appeal.
Christopher Mattei, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told MSNBC after the verdict that they were ready for the long haul.
“Whatever assets he has,” Mattei said, “these families are going to chase him to the ground and enforce every penny of this verdict against him.”
Hill reported from Albany NY Bleiberg contributed from Dallas.
Find full AP coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones
This story corrects the spelling of attorney Thomas Hentoff’s last name.
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