A Connecticut jury began hearing arguments Tuesday in the trial of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to decide how much money he should pay the families of eight Sandy Hook shooting victims and an FBI agent who responded to the December 2012 attack.
It is the second trial for Jones, who was ordered by a Texas jury last month to pay nearly $50 million in compensatory damages to the parents of one of the slain children for the suffering caused by his lies about the massacre. Jones was not in the courtroom Tuesday.
The trial — stemming from a civil case Jones lost by default last year — is being held in Waterbury, about 20 miles from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators.
Jones was found liable by Judge Barbara Bellis without a trial last year after he failed to turn over documents to attorneys for the families.
Before opening statements began, Bellis sanctioned Jones' legal team for what she described as their "stunningly cavalier attitude" toward turning over evidence. Bellis said they "consistently engaged in dilatory and obstructive discovery practices." Jones' attorneys did not turn over data of his Infowars website's traffic.
Bellis told jurors that Jones has already been found liable for damages to the plaintiffs for repeatedly saying the shooting was a hoax on multiple platforms and claiming that no one had died in the shooting. Bellis explained to the six-member jury that their task is to decide how much Jones must pay the plaintiffs for defaming them.
During opening statements, Christopher Mattei, an attorney for the families, told jurors of Jones' business model, saying he profited off of spreading "fear and anxiety and paranoia in his audience." Mattei showed slides of Infowars traffic data, including one showing that in December 2012, the month of the Sandy Hook shooting, the site attracted more than 4.6 million users and upward of 24.9 million page views. For years, Mattei told jurors, Jones has promoted lies on his online and radio shows, saying that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by crisis actors for the federal government as a pretext to take away people's guns.
Mattei told jurors the targets of Jones' lies were "defenseless."
"They didn't have the platform that Alex Jones did. They didn't know who Alex Jones was," Mattei said. "But he knew who they were. His audience knew who they were."
The families of the victims and William Aldenberg, an FBI agent who responded to the Sandy Hook shooting, have said they have been harassed by people who believe Jones' lies. Some have said they even received death threats.
Norm Pattis, an attorney for Jones, told jurors during his opening statement that his client was being scapegoated and treated as a "whipping boy."
"The haters want him silenced," Pattis said. "They hate him because he says outrageous things."
Pattis accused the plaintiffs of "overstating the harm" that Jones caused them, politicizing the proceedings, and said that the damages claims are exaggerated.
Aldenberg was the first witness to take the stand; he wept as he walked the jurors through what he saw and heard Dec. 14, 2012. The FBI agent was among the first law enforcement officers to enter the classrooms where children died.
Asked by Mattei whether he saw any actors or "anything fake" at Sandy Hook that day, Aldenberg struggled to compose himself as he replied: "No. It's awful. It's awful. It's awful."
Aldenberg testified that what he has found most distressing is that "people want to say this didn't happen," "to make profits" off of lies and "destroy people's lives." He said he was among those in the community who were harassed and targeted by conspiracy theories. He said that by 2016, he had contacted multiple agencies, including the FBI, for help with the harassment.
Aldenberg said he felt powerless against Jones and his Infowars brand.
He also recounted finding the body of Vicki Soto, a teacher who was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her sister, Carlee Soto Parisi, was the second witness to testify.
Aldenberg was questioned by Jones' attorney about when he sought help for the harassment he experienced.
During Soto Parisi's testimony, an attorney for the plaintiffs displayed a photo in court that showed her crying on the phone the day her sister was murdered. The photo became the subject of conspiracy theories that claimed it was fake and that she was an actress — which Soto Parisi testified she couldn't wrap her head around.
From there, she said, things "snowballed." She said she faced false allegations that she was a crisis actor and that both her sister and Sandy Hook were fake. Someone left a note on her door saying she needed to go to church, she said.
She said she frequently received threatening emails and messages on social media, some of which contained gun emojis, which led her and her husband to speak with law enforcement. "We were scared for our lives," she said.