By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Texas jury will hear first testimony in a civil trial on Tuesday to decide how much Infowars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones should pay the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School for falsely telling his audience that the deadliest classroom shooting in US history was a hoax.
At stake for Jones is a potentially major financial blow that could put his constellation of conspiracy peddling businesses in jeopardy. He has previously been banned from YouTube, Facebook and Spotify for violating hate speech policies.
The lawsuit involving the parents of two Sandy Hook families is just the beginning for Jones. Damages have yet to be awarded in separate defamation cases for other families from the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
The lawsuits do not ask jurors to award a specific dollar amount against Jones, but in questioning the Texas jury on Monday, the families’ attorneys suggested they could seek $100 million or more in compensatory damages and punitive.
Opening statements and testimony are scheduled for Tuesday. Family members of the shooting victims and Jones were not in the courtroom when a 12-person jury and four alternates were selected Monday from a pool of more than 100 jurors.
“We are very happy that the day has arrived,” said Mark Bankston, attorney for the families suing Jones. “We look forward to telling our customers’ stories.”
It is unclear whether Jones will attend any of the scheduled two-week trials. His attorney said Jones had a “medical issue” but did not elaborate.
Initial testimony on Tuesday is expected to include Daniel Jewiss, who was the Connecticut State Police lead investigator on Sandy Hook, and Daria Karpova, a producer at Infowars.
In questioning the jury, Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal acknowledged that Jones was a “very polarizing” and “controversial” character, but also noted that he would ask the jury to limit damages to $1.
During jury selection, most jurors raised their hands when asked if they had heard of Jones, and nearly two dozen agreed when Reynal asked which of them had an “impression firm negative” from him.
“We are very satisfied with the jury that we formed,” said Reynal. “This is a very important First Amendment case. The lawsuit right now is not just about people’s freedom of speech, but it’s also about people’s freedom to listen. To choose what they watch on TV, to make those choices 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 entered default judgments against Jones without a trial because he failed to respond to court orders and turn over documents.
The trial in Texas begins about two months after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, about 235 miles southwest of Austin. It was the deadliest school shooting in nearly 10 years since Sandy Hook.
The Connecticut shootings in 2012 killed 20 first graders and six educators. The 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 was not responsible for the suffering Sandy Hook’s parents say they endured as a result of the hoax plot, including death threats and harassment from Jones supporters.
Jones claimed in court records last year that he had a negative net worth of $20 million, but attorneys for the Sandy Hook families painted a different financial picture.
Court records show Jones’ Infowars store, which sells nutritional supplements and survival gear, grossed more than $165 million between 2015 and 2018. Jones also urged listeners to his Infowars program to donate silver.
Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.