Jurors must decide how much Newtown families suffering worth
WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — After watching days of testimony that included the parents of slain children breaking down on the witness stand, a Connecticut jury soon will have the difficult task of coming up with a dollar amount that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones should pay for promoting the idea that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.
A judge last year found Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems, liable by default for defaming and inflicting emotional distress on the plaintiffs — eight families who lost loved ones in the 2012 massacre and an FBI agent who was among the first responders. The jury of three men and three women is now charged with determining damages.
One by one, family members have taken the stand to talk about the horrors of losing a loved one, and how that has been compounded by a decade of harassment, fear and pain inflicted by those who believed the lie that the shooting never happened.
In often emotional testimony, they have detailed death and rape threats, mail from conspiracy theorists that included photos of dead children and in-person confrontations with people telling them their children or wives or mothers never existed.
At one point, a juror broke into tears and was comforted by another member of the panel.
Robbie Parker, who gave a live statement to the media about his daughter Emilie the day after she was murdered, took the stand Wednesday, following testimony from his wife Alissa. Robbie Parker had been captured on camera cracking a nervous smile as he approached the microphone the day after the shooting, after his father made a little joke of encouragement, referring to him by the name of the school mascot he once portrayed. It was a moment Jones pounced on to publicly call him a “crisis actor” on his Infowars show.
Parker said soon after that, he began getting hateful comments on social media.
“What was just this littering of comments, by Tuesday (four days after the shooting) became just a burning trash pile,” he said.
Alissa Parker cried while describing the abuse they faced in the days after the shooting because of Jones’ comments. She said they decided to have a closed casket funeral out of fear that someone would take a photo of their daughter’s body and use it to further the conspiracy theories.
“Just the things they were saying about my sweet daughter,” she said through tears. “Things like, ‘Watch your back, we’re watching you and we’re coming after you and your daughter.’ Just horrible things. They called Emilie a whore, just the most horrific things you could ever imagine.”
How jurors arrive at a dollar figure is cloaked in secrecy. Although given some basic instructions, there are no specific ones from the judge on how exactly to arrive at dollar figures.
Jurors, however, have been shown evidence and heard testimony on the millions of dollars Jones and his company have made over the years.
Jones’ lawyer, Norman Pattis, is trying to limit any damages the jury awards. In cross examining witnesses, he has tried to show that Jones wasn’t directly linked to many instances of harassment and threats, and he has accused the victims’ relatives of exaggerating the harm the lies caused them.
Last week, Jones got into a heated exchange with plaintiffs’ attorney Christopher Mattei, accusing the lawyer of “ambulance chasing” and saying he was done apologizing for claiming the shooting was staged. In recent years, Jones has acknowledged the massacre happened, but says the families of victims are being used to push a gun-control and anti-free speech agenda.
Outside the courthouse and on his Infowars show, Jones has referred to the proceedings as a “show trial” and a “kangaroo court” and called Judge Barbara Bellis a tyrant, posting an image of her with lasers shooting from her eyes.
Jones is expected to retake the stand next week. Closing arguments and jury deliberations are expected to follow soon afterward.
In a similar trial last month in Austin, Texas, home to Jones and Infowars, a jury ordered Jones to pay nearly $50 million in damages to the parents of one of the children killed in the shooting, because of the hoax lies. A third such trial in Texas involving two other parents is expected to begin near the end of the year.