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Alex Jones ordered to pay nearly $1 billion to Sandy Hook Families

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Connecticut jury has ordered Alex Jones and Free Speech Systems, the parent company of his Infowars website, to pay nearly $1 billion to eight families of children shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Damages in the defamation case were also awarded to a former FBI agent who responded that day. Frankie Graziano of Connecticut Public Radio has been covering the trial. And, Frankie, this is a huge number. I understand it actually may go higher. Remind us, what were the jurors considering exactly?

FRANKIE GRAZIANO, BYLINE: Nine hundred sixty-five million dollars, Sacha. And what these are are compensatory damages. They basically had to come up with two damage figures - one, defamation, per se, and emotional distress - compensatory damages - to 15 plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit.

PFEIFFER: What was Jones found liable for?

GRAZIANO: This is for defamation. You'll remember that after the - in the Sandy Hook shooting in December 14 of 2012, 20 children were killed and six adults were killed. Literally, like, three hours after the shooting, Alex Jones is on his Infowars show pointing to the shooting as being staged. And a lot resulted from that in how the families were treated. The plaintiffs during the trial talked about shutting down Facebook pages memorializing loved ones as the attacks came in. One plaintiff named Erica Lafferty says a letter threatening rape came to her house. The family of a teacher killed in the shooting says a troll harassed them at a memorial 5k event.

PFEIFFER: Frankie, you were in court for most of this trial. So you heard Jones defend himself or try to defend himself. How did he do that?

GRAZIANO: It's interesting. He was in the court a lot, and he got maligned for this by the plaintiffs. But he was in court - outside the courthouse a lot in the opening days of the trial. He never really sat in court until he did his testimony a few days into the trial. When he was there, he had a contentious fight with the plaintiffs, even calling the plaintiffs' attorney, Chris Mattei, an ambulance chaser. And then he didn't come back, even though he was supposed to testify as a defense witness. The defense didn't call any witnesses. They just played tape of Jones talking during their closing statement. And it sounds like he's going to appeal this. They were kind of alluding that throughout the trial, the attorney for Alex Jones saying the fix was in.

But on the other side, it's been a long journey for the families. They reacted to this. One person in particular, Robbie Parker, the day after the shooting was being attacked by conspiracy theorists, dissected for the way he acted, crying and memorializing his daughter in a video statement. He said today that it was his attorneys that gave him the strength to fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBBIE PARKER: I let my voice be taken away from me and my power be taken away from me at the expense of my daughter and at the expense of my family.

PFEIFFER: Frankie, is $1 billion just a symbolic victory? And are these families likely to see few or any dollars? Or will Jones really be able to pay this?

GRAZIANO: You know, the families say that they're going to enforce this verdict. The attorney, Chris Mattei, says that he's going to go into Texas bankruptcy court, and they're saying that there are now significant creditors to Jones and Infowars. And they say that they'll pursue it locally if they have to as well.

PFEIFFER: So they may try to come up with the money. And explain why the dollar amount may get even higher.

GRAZIANO: Yes, $965 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages. In Connecticut, common law punitive damages usually cap to just attorney fees and expenses. But because of a local unfair trade practices act Jones was found to have violated, that number could go up. The judge could really enforce whatever punitive damage number she wants.

PFEIFFER: Frankie, thank you for covering this. I'm sure it was hard to watch. We've been speaking with reporter Frankie Graziano from outside the courthouse in Waterbury, Conn. Thank you.

GRAZIANO: Thank you for having me, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frankie Graziano is the host of 'The Wheelhouse,' focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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