(Updates with opening statements)
By Jack Queen
July 26 (Reuters) - U.S. conspiracy theorist Alex Jones led a "vile campaign of defamation" when he falsely claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, a Texas jury was told on Tuesday, but a lawyer for Jones said his client already had paid a price.
Attorney Mark Bankston, representing the parents of slain 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, made the accusation at the start of a jury trial to decide how much Jones must pay for spreading falsehoods about the killing of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012.
Jones, founder of the Infowars radio show and webcast, had asserted the mainstream media and gun-control activists conspired to fabricate the tragedy. He had said the shooting was staged using crisis actors but later acknowledged it took place.
“Mr. Jones was continually churning out this idea that Sandy Hook was fake,” Bankston told jurors. He said Jones and Infowars were responsible for the “most despicable and vile campaign of defamation and slander in American history.”
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, Jesse's parents, are seeking $150 million in compensatory and punitive damages for what they say was a campaign of harassment and death threats by Jones’ followers.
Federico Reynal, an attorney for Jones, acknowledged that Infowars had spread false information but said his client had a right to question mainstream narratives on his show. He said Jones had lost millions of viewers since being deplatformed on social media in 2018.
“He regrets what he did, and he’s paying a price for it,” Reynal said.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in Austin, Texas, who is overseeing the trial, issued a rare default judgment in 2021, finding Jones liable without a trial after he flouted court orders and failed to turn over documents.
The defamation suit in Texas, where Infowars is based, is one of several brought by families of victims who say they were harassed by Jones’ followers and suffered emotional distress after he claimed the shooting was staged.
Jones and his company Free Speech Systems LLC are the defendants in the case.
The damages trial follows months of delays. Three entities related to Infowars filed bankruptcy in a since-dismissed case. The families of the Sandy Hook victims had said the bankruptcy was a sinister attempt by Jones to shield his assets from liability stemming from the defamation lawsuits.
Jones, who was present in the courtroom, is set to face trial in September in a similar defamation suit in Connecticut state court, where he has also been found liable for defamation in a default judgment.
The Sandy Hook gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, used a Remington Bushmaster rifle to carry out the massacre. It ended when Lanza killed himself with the approach of police sirens. (Reporting by Jack Queen; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller)