AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury was selected Monday in a civil trial that will determine for the first time how much Infowars host Alex Jones must pay Sandy Hook Elementary School parents for falsely telling his audience that the deadliest classroom shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.
Opening statements are set for Tuesday.
The trial in Austin — where the conspiracy theorist lives and broadcasts his show — follows months of delays. Jones has racked up fines for ignoring court orders and he put Infowars into bankruptcy protection just before the trial was originally set to start in April.
At stake for Jones is another potentially major financial blow that could put his constellation of conspiracy peddling businesses into deeper jeopardy. He has already been banned from YouTube, Facebook and Spotify over violating hate-speech policies.
The trial involving the parents of two Sandy Hook families is only the start for Jones; damages have yet to be awarded in separate defamation cases for other families of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
The lawsuits do not ask jurors to award a specific dollar amount against Jones, but attorneys for the families suggested they could seek $100 million or more in compensatory and punitive damages.
Family members of the shooting victims and Jones were not in the courtroom Monday.
“We’re very glad the day is here,” said Mark Bankston, attorney for the families suing Jones. “We’re looking forward to telling our clients’ story.”
During Monday’s jury selection, several in the initial pool of more than 100 jury candidates said they held strong beliefs on free speech and questioned whether any punitive damages would be fair. A few others said they would struggle to assign damages that could reach $100 million or higher. Yet others said that although they also believe in the principles of free speech, they would not have a problem assigning damages — even a large amount of money — for blatant falsehoods that might have caused harm.
It is unclear whether Jones will attend any of the scheduled two-week trial. His attorney, Andino Reynal, said Jones has a “medical issue” that his legal legal team advised him not to be there for jury selection. Reynal didn’t elaborate and said it’s “up in the air” whether Jones will be in court.
In questioning the jury pool, Reynal acknowledged Jones is a “very polarizing” and “controversial” figure, but also noted he’d ask the jury to cap damages at $1.
Most of jury pool raised their hand when asked if they had heard of Jones, and nearly two dozen agreed when Reynal asked who among them had a “firm negative impression” of him.
A total of 16 people were selected for the Texas jury, which includes four alternates. That total panel includes seven women and nine men.
“We’re very happy with the jury we’ve seated,” Reynal said. “It’s a very important First Amendment case. On trial right now is not just people’s freedom of speech, but it’s also people’s freedom to listen. To choose what they watch on television, to make those choices for themselves, instead of having a personal injury lawyer make those choices for them.”
Courts in Texas and Connecticut have already found Jones liable for defamation for his portrayal of the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax involving actors aimed at increasing gun control. In both states, judges have issued default judgements against Jones without trials because he failed to respond to court orders and turn over documents.
The Texas trial begins about two months after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which is about 145 miles (235 kilometers) southwest of Austin. It was the deadliest school shooting in the nearly 10 years since Sandy Hook.
The 2012 Connecticut shooting killed 20 first graders and six educators. Families of eight of the victims and an FBI agent who responded to the school are suing Jones and his company, Free Speech Systems.
Jones has since acknowledged that the shooting took place. During a deposition in April, Jones insisted he wasn’t responsible for the suffering that Sandy Hook parents say they have endured because of the hoax conspiracy, including death threats and harassment by Jones’ followers.
“No, I don’t (accept) responsibility because I wasn’t trying to cause pain and suffering,” Jones said, according to the transcripts made public this month. He continued: “They are being used and their children who can’t be brought back (are) being used to destroy the First Amendment.”
Jones claimed in court records last year that he had a negative net worth of $20 million, but attorneys for Sandy Hook families have painted a different financial picture.
Court records show that Jones’ Infowars store, which sells nutritional supplements and survival gear, made more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018. Jones has also urged listeners on his Infowars program to donate money.
Initial testimony Tuesday is expected to include Daniel Jewiss, who was the Connecticut State Police lead investigator of Sandy Hook, and Daria Karpova, a producer at Infowars.
Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.
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