On Monday, a new day dawned for Alex Jones’s empire. A jury selected from a pool of more than one hundred Travis County residents was impaneled in the courtroom of Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in the case of Heslin v. Jones, the first of a series of lawsuits filed nearly four years ago against Jones and FSS, the parent company of Jones’s Infowars, by the families of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. The jury selection process was a fascinating window into how his hometown peers think about Jones, financial damages, and freedom of speech.
The jury won’t be there to determine whether Jones defamed the families by claiming that the massacre in which their children were murdered was a hoax—“completely fake with actors,” he said, “with inside job written all over it.” It also won’t be there to decide whether Jones, by making that claim, intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon the families. Both of those charges have already been settled—against Jones—after Gamble and a second judge, in Connecticut, issued default judgments that found that because Jones’s FSS failed to respond to discovery requests and other requirements ordered by the court that the plaintiffs needed to prove their case, he was liable for the charges. Rather, the jury will determine the damages Jones will owe the families—both compensatory damages, which means the amount of money he’ll have to pay in order to make them whole for their losses because of the defamation and the emotional distress they suffered, and punitive damages, which are intended to send a message of disapproval for his years of making false statements about the massacre.
But how do you determine those damages? Over the next two weeks, the jurors will be tasked with figuring out what Jones owes. The numbers could vary wildly; Andino Reynal, the defense attorney representing Jones, told jurors that he’d be seeking damages of exactly one dollar. Wesley Ball, one of the partners at the Houston firm of Farrar and Ball, which represents the plaintiffs, raised figures as large as $200 million.
On Monday, both sets of attorneys spent the day with the full jury pool, whittling down the hundred-plus prospective jurors to just twelve (plus a handful of alternates who could be called to serve if somebody gets hit by a car or otherwise is unable to make it through the entire two weeks). The parties had pretty similar goals: to strike anyone who was inclined to the dollar range the other side sought. The goals of some prospective jurors, meanwhile, were a little different: they just wanted to go home. In most jury pools, the group that would prefer not to serve is the largest number—civic responsibility or no, not a lot of us are excited about the prospect of taking a week out of our lives to sit in on an insurance case or a DWI. But of course, Alex Jones is one of the more interesting characters in public life, and the questions in this trial are compelling enough that as many jurors seemed eager to serve as actively tried to get disqualified.
Even those who wanted to get out of serving sometimes had more complicated reasons than you’d normally find—more than one prospective juror expressed concern that serving in this case might endanger herself or her family. “I have strong opinions about the person on trial, and the people who follow that person,” one said, “and I’m worried about my family if we find in a way that they don’t like.” Another had a family member who’d been involved in a physical encounter with someone from Infowars and required medical treatment, and asked to be excused on those grounds.
The attorneys took different approaches to identifying the jurors they wanted removed from the pool. Ball, representing Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis (the parents of six-year-old Sandy Hook victim Jesse Lewis), looked to strike jurors who oppose large civil court verdicts as a matter of principle. This is pretty standard stuff for high-dollar plaintiffs’ attorneys, which Ball is (his firm’s focus has previously been on traffic cases involving unsafe tires). But it also speaks to one of the challenges the Sandy Hook families face in Texas: our juries are often fairly conservative when it comes to awarding damages. During the voir dire process, which is the legal term for jury selection (and which every Texan in every courtroom, including this one, pronounces “voor-dyer”), prospective jurors frequently said things like, “I don’t think there is monetary compensation that can compensate anyone for emotional damage” or “I have a problem with punitive damages as a concept” or “Somebody’s feelings get hurt? That doesn’t cost money.” (All three jurors who said those things were stricken from the pool.)
Because it’s Austin, things also got a little weird—one juror said she opposed punitive damages because “punishment puts something out in the universe that’s going to come back to you.” Politics didn’t play a huge role in the questions, although a number of jurors volunteered their opinions—on both sides. One expressed concern with being included because, he said, “I’m a conservative Republican,” with no further justification offered. Another posed a hypothetical and asked if it was disqualifying: “What if you think that the defendant should pay every cent that he has?” (Neither was found qualified to be on the jury.)
Reynal, who serves as Jones’s lead attorney, took an approach that was a little more expansive. Rather than pick out specific jurors to ask about their views, he facilitated something akin to trauma therapy among the jury pool, positing a hypothetical: say there’s a car accident where someone’s car is totaled and their arm broken. The appropriate damages, he suggested, would be to pay the medical bills and to replace the car. And then he waited as the prospective jurors went from agreeing that was fair to reconsidering: What if the driver had to miss work because of their injuries? What if the driver were a professional tennis player whose career was ruined? Jury candidates quickly began sharing their own stories—of the time they were in a hit-and-run with an eighteen-wheeler and how they’ve been afraid to drive on the highway since, or the time their house was burgled and how that affected their quality of life to the point that they are afraid to host friends in their home, or how their father was murdered and a settlement from the hotel at which it occurred was a significant part of the healing process. As a way to responsibly get a large group to engage with lingering, largely unaddressed trauma, it might not have been great—but as a technique to identify jurors who would be more likely to approve of a large award based on a hard-to-quantify concept such as emotional distress, it was quite smooth.
The jurors who emerged from the process don’t have an easy job. The questions at the heart of the Jones case are difficult to parse, especially at this point in the proceedings. A number of candidates raised concerns around freedom of speech, but those questions have already been resolved; while some of the jurors may believe that Jones had the right to say what he did under the First Amendment, the courts, as a matter of law, already found that the statements he made were not protected speech. How do you get a juror to accept, as a matter of course, that their own opinion on that question is not relevant and that the only question they need to consider is how much harm his speech caused, and how much he should be punished?
Reynal, in interrogating a handful of prospective jurors during voir dire, cut to the other question that makes this case so complicated: how will jurors separate their sympathy for the parents whose children were murdered, which Alex Jones didn’t do, from the damage caused by what he actually did—defame them, and intentionally inflict emotional distress, by insisting to a global audience that the entire massacre was “staged,” and that their kids were actually child actors pretending to have been killed in order to advance a shadowy conspiracy? How do you put a dollar value on that?
Now that the jurors have been selected, they’ll spend two weeks hearing from experts, witnesses, victims, and perhaps Jones himself; he didn’t attend on Monday because of unspecified “medical issues,” which Reynal said led him to decide over Jones’s objections to keep him out of the courtroom. The stakes for Jones are impossibly high—potentially into nine figures! And they won’t end here, either: because he was successfully sued in both Texas and Connecticut by multiple victims’ families, multiple juries will be convened, each with the same opportunity to award massive damages. So even as Jones faces his first reckoning over the lies he spread about Sandy Hook, it’s really only the beginning of the beginning of the end.