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Alex Jones is ordered to pay $45.2 million for lying about Sandy Hook school shooting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A jury in Austin, Texas, today ordered Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages for lying about the Sandy Hook school shooting on his "InfoWars" program. Now, this was the second damage award in as many days, and NPR's John Burnett joins us now from Austin to talk more about it. Hey, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: OK. So again, this is the punishment phase of the defamation lawsuit here.

BURNETT: Yeah.

CHANG: How significant would you say is the amount of punitive damages awarded here?

BURNETT: It sounds like Jones has finally gotten his comeuppance. The plaintiffs had asked for $146 million in punitive damages. They got $45 million. You add that to the $4 million in compensatory damages yesterday. That's almost $50 million. That's a big punishment. Here's what the verdict sounded like when Judge Maya Gamble read it late this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYA GUERRA GAMBLE: Question No. 1, $4,200,000. Question No. 2, $20,500,000. Question No. 3, $20,500,000.

BURNETT: You know, and despite the grinning, bombastic image that Jones has projected in court all week, this has been an ordeal for him, and his legal troubles are far from over.

CHANG: Well, what about whether Jones can even pay this amount? Like, did we learn anything in court about what he can afford?

BURNETT: Yeah. The lawyers who are representing the mother and father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, one of the 20 first graders killed in that Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, the lawyers called just one expert witness, and that was a forensic economist named Bernard Pettengill. And if Jones is as rich as this expert claims he is in court today, Jones can afford these damages. Pettengill said even after "InfoWars" was kicked off Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Jones's broadcast and retail operations still pulled in $64 million in revenue last year.

CHANG: Wow.

BURNETT: The expert estimated the net worth of Jones and his Free Speech Systems at between $135 and $270 million today. And he said after Jones started getting hit with all these default judgments and the civil defamation lawsuits, he began socking away $11,000 a day into a shell company he controls to protect it from these legal damages.

CHANG: OK. Well, tell us about the closing arguments. What did the lawyers on both sides say?

BURNETT: Right. It was more dramatic testimony. So here's what Wes Ball said. He was the lawyer for the Sandy Hook family in his final argument to the jury today - you have the ability to send a message for everybody in the country and the world, stop Alex Jones. Stop the monetization of misinformation and lies. Ball asked for a verdict large enough to shut down "InfoWars." He said, I ask you to make certain he can't rebuild that platform. That's punishment. That's deterrence. Now, Alex Jones attorney Federico Reynal acknowledged the weight of the case against his client. And he said today Alex Jones was absolutely reckless, it was wrong and he admits it. But right Reynal keep in mind the national conversation. There were conspiracy theories all over the internet. And Reynal countered that Jones is not a multimillionaire, that he's deeply in debt.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious. What do you think, John, the upshot of this trial will be, like, in the right-wing media sphere after this?

BURNETT: Yeah. You know, I put that question to Bill Adair. He's professor of journalism at Duke University and founder of the PolitiFact fact-checking project. And he said the verdict has symbolic power because Alex Jones is larger than life.

BILL ADAIR: It could serve as a deterrent to others who might go on various platforms and make wild, ridiculous, unfounded claims. And this could make them think twice about doing that.

BURNETT: And let's remember there are two more civil lawsuits against Alex Jones filed by families of Sandy Hook victims, one in Austin and one in Connecticut.

CHANG: That is NPR's John Burnett in Austin. Thank you, John.

BURNETT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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