AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A jury in Texas is ordering Alex Jones to pay more than $4 million to the parents of a young child killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre. The conspiracy theorist and Infowars program host repeatedly claimed that the shooting was a hoax.
NPR's John Burnett has been covering the defamation trial in Austin and joins us now. Hey, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK, so what did the jury decide here exactly?
BURNETT: Right. Well, the jury decided today, as you said, to award the parents of the slain first-grader a total of $4.1 million for mental anguish caused by Alex Jones for spreading these falsehoods about the school shooting. And that's obviously way short of the $150 million...
BURNETT: ...The parents' attorneys had asked for. Each parent was awarded $1.5 million for past mental anguish and $500,000 for future anguish. And then there was a $100,000 award for damage done to the reputation of the father, Neil Heslin. And of course, Jones' attorney had asked for $8 in damages.
CHANG: That said, I understand that the jury is also looking at punitive damages. So when do we expect that decision?
BURNETT: Exactly. These are just compensatory damages. It's tomorrow, Ailsa. The punitive damage phase starts tomorrow with the same jury. And that's when they'll decide the monetary figure as punishment to Jones for knowingly lying about the Sandy Hook school shooting. You know, he said over and over between 2012 and 2018 that this elementary school massacre was staged by the federal government as a pretext just to crack down on guns. And so tomorrow, Jones can take the stand and defend himself in this phase. And the jury could go light like they did today, or they could really sock it to him. I should add, during the trial, Jones' company, Free Speech Systems, filed for bankruptcy. But the parents' lawyers say Jones is actually hiding millions of dollars in assets.
CHANG: Well, John, you have been watching this whole trial for us. Can you just recap, like, what have we learned from these proceedings, not only about Alex Jones' actions but about his company in general?
BURNETT: Well, I mean, we learned that he never tried to check out this preposterous narrative that the school shooting was a hoax. He never fact-checked, never did any reporting. And we learned the terrifying effects that it had on the parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who was slain in that mass shooting. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis testified that for years they lived through stalking, death threats, harassment from all these deranged followers of Infowars and that they'd suffered panic attacks, had to go into hiding. Their attorney said even the threats continued in Austin during the trial, forcing them to travel with security detail. Jones said he never intended to hurt the parents, and he said he's just a pundit. Questioning big news events in America is protected by the First Amendment.
CHANG: And there are more trials to come, right? Like, what do we know about those?
BURNETT: Right. You know, after all this wraps up in Austin that's gotten so much attention, there's another legal action by other Sandy Hook lawyers pending in Connecticut that could start very soon. And then we learned that Jones' lawyer is trying to hold off releasing this trove of cellphone messages...
BURNETT: ...That were revealed yesterday to the House committee investigating the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C. And so there were two years of phone messages, many of them that may be incriminating, that popped out of the trial. And now they're trying to stop those from going to Washington by this investigative committee.
CHANG: The saga continues. That is NPR's John Burnett in Austin. Thank you, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Ailsa.
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