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Why The Billion Dollar Verdict Against Alex Jones May Not Be The End
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has lost two trials for telling lies about the families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims. But will he ever really pay?
The nearly $1 billion judgment 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 eye-popping figure would deter others from broadcasting falsehoods.
But Jones has given no signs of tempering his bluster — a headline on his website Thursday blared that the “show trial verdict signals the death of free speech.” And lawyers say it’s not certain that relatives who lost loved ones in the mass shooting will see the full dollar amount after promised appeals and a bankruptcy proceeding play out.
“Every plaintiff’s lawyer knows from often bitter experiences that it is usually easier to get a judgment than to enforce it,” said Columbia University law professor John Coffee.
So while the judgment may be a milestone, it's not an end point.
Experts say the Sandy Hook families likely face a long fight ahead as they try to collect the $965 million awarded to them by a jury in Connecticut Wednesday 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 CASE ABOUT?
After 26 people were killed by a gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, Jones made a false conspiracy theory a centerpiece of his programing 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 drew legions of followers, some of whom then spent years harassing the parents and siblings of the 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 that he and his lawyers were improperly withholding information and records from the plaintiffs.
Trials 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 he doesn't have the kind of money being sought by the family members suing him. Jones has repeatedly said he doesn’t even have $2 million to his name.
“When the reality sets in that they’re not going to silence me 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 in 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 outlining a single day’s gross revenue of $800,000 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 a combined net worth that could be as high as $270 million.
“You can't invent money. If $270 million is the maximum, you’re not going to get more than that, at least without finding some new sources that haven’t yet been uncovered,” Coffee said.
Russ Horton, a Texas attorney, said dramatically large civil judgments often get cut down on appeal. But he said even if the Connecticut verdict is reduced, it will likely be ruinous for Jones.
“This is a judgment that is very likely to exceed his net worth, however it comes down,” said Horton, noting the uncertainty about Jones’ assets.
IS BANKRUPTCY A BARRIER?
Complicating matters is the fact that Jones is seeking bankruptcy protection for his company.
Free Speech Systems, Infowars' parent company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. Jones told a court his company had estimated assets of $50,000 or less and estimated liabilities of $1 million to $10 million. He said at the time that he was “totally maxed out” financially.
The Sandy Hook families have alleged in bankruptcy court filings that after they brought their defamation cases Jones began “diverting assets” out of Free Speech Systems, totaling in 2021 and 2022 to more than $60 million. They say Jones also drew a $1.4 million annual salary from the company at a time that he claimed it was operating at a net loss.
Horton said that Jones’ company’s bankruptcy is likely to complicate and draw out the Sandy Hook families efforts to collect on their judgments. The judgments against Jones personally can still be collected, he said, but their scale might force him to file for individual bankruptcy.
But bankruptcy doesn’t get Jones off the hook.
“Bankruptcy is not the place you want to be if you’re hiding assets or behaving badly,” said Horton.
Last month, Houston-based bankruptcy Judge Christopher Lopez dismissed Jones’ attorney and chief restructuring officer – citing a lack of transparency by his company – and empowered a Department of Justice-appointed trustee to hire lawyers to investigate Free Speech Systems.
On Wednesday, Lopez approved a new restructuring officer to handle Jones’ company and appointed another judge as a mediator to hash out 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 assail his critics and said “we have two years of appeals.” While Jones in recent years has acknowledged the shooting happened, he claims the families are being used to push a gun control and anti-free speech agenda.
“They try to shut me off. It ain’t happening,” he said Thursday.
The judgment has been compared to pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the gossip blog Gawker, which ultimately bankrupted the business.
But it's not clear if the judgment would have a chilling effect on others who broadcast false and defamatory statements, said Thomas Hentoff, a Washington-based First Amendment attorney who has represented major media companies.
It can take years or even decades to collect judgments, Hentoff said, and Jones' cases were outliers because he had default judgments against him, meaning he never staged a merits defense.
“There are a lot of people who make money by expressing extreme views, and I would hesitate to think that a large jury’s monetary judgment in itself would cause them to change course,” Hentoff said.
The judge in Connecticut will soon decide the amounts of punitive damages, which will be added to the $965 million. After that, Jones can formally appeal.
Christopher Mattei, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said on MSNBC after the verdict that they were prepared for the long haul.
“Whatever assets he has,” Mattei said, “these families are going to chase him to ground and enforce every cent of this verdict against him.”