AUSTIN, Texas — For 90 searing minutes in a courtroom on Tuesday, a Sandy Hook mother confronted conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones face-to-face with the devastation she said her lies about the mass shooting that took place killed his son had caused his family and on the national discourse.
“Truth – truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse, 6, was among 20 first-graders and six educators killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Jones told the witness box.
Mr Jones questioned the events at Sandy Hook, but “you know that’s not true”, she said, staring at him as he fidgeted at the defense table. “When you say those things, there’s a section of society that thinks you’re really dangerous.”
It was a standout moment in the long-running legal battles between the Sandy Hook families and the Infowars fabulist, who for years have been spreading lies that the shooting was a government hoax and that the families were ‘actors’ in the conspiracy. Mr Jones, who regularly berated the families on air, rarely appeared in the same room as them, despite being found guilty in a series of libel suits brought by the families of 10 victims.
The trial involving Ms Lewis and Neil Heslin, Jesse’s father, is the first of three in which juries will decide how much Mr Jones must pay for defaming the families. Mr. Jones mostly avoided appearing in court. But through an accident of planning as he prepared to give evidence in his defense, he came face to face with Ms Lewis, who addressed him personally throughout her testimony.
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
“Alex, I want you to hear this,” Mrs. Lewis said, fixing his gaze. “We are more polarized than ever as a country. It’s partly because of you. Mr. Jones shook his head nervously.
The families of Sandy Hook endured years of torment and threats after Mr Jones, hours after the shooting, called Sandy Hook a government-planned ‘false flag’ operation as a pretext to confiscate the weapons fire from the Americans.
Business records released during the proceedings indicate that Mr. Jones raked in more than $50 million a year selling dietary supplements, gun accessories, bulletproof vests and doomsday preparedness gear while peddling conspiracy theories to millions of people listening to his radio show and online. Jesse Lewis’ parents are seeking $150 million in damages. More important than money, Ms Lewis said on Tuesday: “I hope to accomplish an era of truth.”
At the heart of the trial, which is due to end this week, is a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” in which Ms Kelly portrayed Mr Jones. On the show, Mr. Heslin protested Mr. Jones’ refusal to fire. He recalled his final moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole in his head.” Subsequently, Mr. Jones and a sidekick, Owen Shroyer, suggested on Infowars that Mr. Heslin was lying.
Mr. Heslin testified on the first Tuesday. In a low voice and frequently stopping to cry, he described his son as an energetic boy with a booming voice, who enjoyed teaming up with his father to collect scrap metal and recyclables which he returned for spend money. When the shooter walked into Jesse’s classroom, he yelled “Run!” during a break in filming. Nine children ran and survived.
Mr Heslin said conspiracy theorists tried to contact him by phone, confronted him and pushed him into the street. Someone fired a gun at his house and his car. This spring, he said, someone walked past his house and shouted “Alex Jones!” and he heard the sound of gunshots.
Looking at Mr Jones’ empty seat at the defense table, Mr Heslin called his absence a “cowardly act”.
“The statements and remarks made by Infowars and Alex Jones have tarnished Jesse’s legacy,” he added.
While Mr. Heslin testified, Mr. Jones drove across town to broadcast his show. After watching Mr Heslin’s testimony on a YouTube stream from the courtroom, he called the grieving father ‘slow’ and ‘manipulated by some really bad people’.
An hour later, Mr Jones showed up in court accompanied by his wife and a group of bodyguards. Ms Lewis, who had seen the show slander Mr Heslin during a break in testimony, was waiting for him.
“I struggled to find the words today. It makes me feel stunned, in a bad way,” she told Mr Jones. “Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.”
Mr Jones gave evidence after Ms Lewis, saying he had repeatedly tried to apologise.
Travis County District Court Judge Maya Guerra Gamble later chastised him for lying under oath in parts of his testimony. Mr Jones had told the jury he was ‘bankrupt’, although his bankruptcy case has yet to go to trial and the families’ lawyers say it is a tactic to avoid upcoming trials . He also claimed that he complied with court orders in the defamation suits, when in fact his failure for years to submit documents and testimony was the reason he lost them all.
“You are under oath. It means things have to be true when you say them,” Judge Guerra Gamble told Mr Jones. He tried to intervene, but she stopped him: “Don’t talk.
After the judge left the courtroom, Mr. Jones approached Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis and shook their hands. Their lawyers chased them away and Mr Jones exploded in anger, saying the parents were ‘controlled’.