The nearly $1 billion verdict 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 the figure will deter others from broadcasting falsehoods.
But Jones showed no sign of softening his wake — a headline on his website Thursday read that “pretrial verdict signals death of free speech.” And lawyers say it’s not certain that relatives who lost loved ones in mass shootings will see the full dollar amount after promised appeals and bankruptcy proceedings.
“Every plaintiff’s attorney knows from often bitter experience that it is usually easier to obtain a judgment than to enforce it,” said Columbia University Law Professor John Coffee.
So while the verdict may be a turning point, it is not the 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 verdict from a Texas jury in August.
Here’s a look at some of the issues raised by the ruling.
What is the subject about?
After 26 people were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, Jones made the bogus conspiracy theory a centerpiece of his programming on his flagship Infowars show.
He promoted the 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 harassed the parents and siblings of the victims for years, as well as an FBI agent who called the school.
Jones was found liable in a backlog of multiple defamation lawsuits after judges ruled that he and his lawyers improperly withheld information and records from plaintiffs.
Robbie Parker, who lost his daughter Emilie in the Sandy Hook massacre, spoke outside Waterbury Superior Court after a jury awarded him and 14 other plaintiffs $965 million in damages from Alex Jones’ Sandy Hook.
Trials were held in Texas and Connecticut to determine how much he owed the families for lying about them. Jones is facing a third trial in Texas, in a lawsuit filed by the parents of another child killed in the shooting.
Does Alex Jones have a billion dollars?
Jones claimed that he does not have the money that the family members who are suing him are seeking. Jones has repeatedly said he doesn’t even have two million dollars to his name.
A different picture was presented at the Texas trial.
During his testimony, Jones was confronted with a memo from one of his business managers that reported gross daily income of $800,000 from the sale of vitamin supplements and other products through his website. Jones called it a record day of sales. 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 not without finding some new sources that haven’t been discovered yet,” Coffee said.
Russ Horton, a Texas attorney, said dramatically large civil judgments are often reduced on appeal. But he said even if the sentence in Connecticut is reduced, it will likely be devastating for Jones.
“This is a judgment that will very likely exceed his net worth, however it is reduced,” Horton said, noting the uncertainty surrounding 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 said in court that his company valued its assets at $50,000 or less and estimated its liabilities at $1 million to $10 million. At the time, he said he was “completely exhausted” financially.
The Sandy Hook families alleged in bankruptcy court filings that after they launched their defamation cases, Jones began “diverting funds” from Free Speech Systems, totaling more than $60 million in 2021 and 2022. Jones is also said to have drawn 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 delay the Sandy Hook families’ efforts to collect on their judgments. The judgments against Jones personally are still collectable, he said, but their scale could force him to file for individual bankruptcy.
Prosecutors hope the verdict will set a precedent for providing future protection to other families of mass shooting victims.
But bankruptcy doesn’t absolve Jones.
“Bankruptcy is not a place 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 his company’s lack of transparency — and authorized a Justice Department-appointed commissioner to hire lawyers to investigate free-speech schemes.
On Wednesday, Lopez approved a new restructuring officer to lead Jones’ company and appointed another judge as a mediator to resolve disputes in the federal case.
William Sherlach, whose wife Mary Sherlach was killed at Sandy Hook, told reporters after the verdict that “people like Alex Jones are going to have to rethink what they’re saying.”
On his show Thursday, Jones continued to attack his critics and said “we have two years to appeal.” Although Jones has acknowledged in recent years that the shooting happened, he claims the families are being used to promote gun control and an anti-free speech agenda.
“They are trying to exclude me. That’s not happening,” he said on Thursday.
The ruling has been compared to professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against the gossip blog Gawker, which eventually led to bankruptcy.
But it’s unclear whether the ruling would have a chilling effect on others who broadcast false and defamatory statements, said Thomas Hentoff, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington who has represented major media companies.
Convictions can take years or even decades to accumulate, Hentoff said, and Jones’ cases were remarkable because he had outstanding convictions against him, meaning he never mounted a valid defense.
“There are a lot of people who make a living out of expressing extreme views, and I would be hesitant to think that a grand jury monetary verdict by itself would cause them to change course,” Hentoff said.
A judge in Connecticut will soon decide on punitive damages amounts, which will add up to $965 million. After that, Jones can make a formal appeal.
Christopher Mattei, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told MSNBC after the verdict that they were prepared for the long haul.
“Whatever assets he has,” Mattei said, “these families will drive him to the ground and execute every cent of this judgment against him.”