“There’s a million things you could object to, and they’re all sustained,” Judge Maya Guerra Gamble said yesterday at Alex Jones’s defamation trial.
Testimony in the case brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of six-year-old Jesse Lewis who was slain in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, was by turns wrenching and hilarious. After years of ducking discovery and a Hail Mary pass to the bankruptcy court, the podcaster is finally facing off against the Sandy Hook families he called “crisis actors,” labeling the massacre a “hoax,” inspiring his demented followers to harass them for the past ten years.
Much of the testimony centered on the fallout from an interview Jones did with Megyn Kelly for NBC in 2017. The show aired on Father’s Day, and featured Heslin talking about holding his son’s body. Kelly then excoriated Jones for failing to apologize and harassing the Sandy Hook families for profit.
After the show aired, Infowars host Owen Shroyer, also a named defendant, aired an unsourced allegation suggesting that Heslin was lying about having held his son’s body. The conspiracy theory was based on a clip from an Anderson Cooper broadcast in which the medical examiner said he’d allowed the families to identify their loved ones by photo to spare them trauma, from which Shroyer inferred that the state had never returned the bodies to the families, and thus Heslin couldn’t have held his son.
“Will there be a clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Shroyer chuckled in footage played at least a dozen times for the jury, “Don’t hold your breath.”
The broadcast marked a period of increased harassment for the plaintiffs, with Heslin directly in the bullseye. He and Lewis found themselves targeted by Wolfgang Halbig, a deranged conspiracy theorist platformed by Jones and Shroyer despite internal Infowars emails acknowledging that the man was not well. Indeed, Infowars’s corporate representative Brittany Paz testified yesterday that she couldn’t speak to the content of Halbig’s manic missives because most people at the company had stopped opening his emails.
Psychotherapist W. Michael Crouch and forensic psychiatrist Roy Lubit testified about the damage caused by Jones’s lies. They described Lewis as gripped by fear for her own safety and that of her surviving son, sleeping with multiple weapons by her bed and refusing to even run the air conditioner in the heat lest she fail to hear someone sneaking up to do her family harm. Heslin, whose home and car have been shot at, is a broken man, suffering from panic attacks and unable to heal because of ongoing re-traumatization by people who doubt that his son was killed, if indeed he ever existed.
The mood was somber, but punctuated at regular intervals by unintended levity as Judge Gamble got increasingly furious Jones’s lawyer Andino Reynal for his procedural, umm, gaffes.
“I’m not clear what I can show the witness,” he said at one point, provoking the court to remark acidly that, “You’re not allowed to show the witness anything you haven’t shown opposing counsel. I think we learned that the first year of law school.”
Jones’s egregious refusal to cooperate with discovery earned him “death penalty sanctions” in both the Texas and Connecticut Sandy Hook cases. So, with his client’s defamatory conduct an established fact, Reynal was left with the unenviable job of making Alex Jones look sympathetic. This is no mean feat, and the task was made no easier by Reynal’s consistent failure to object evidence at sidebar, allowing plaintiffs’ counsel Mark Bankston a free shot before the jury to explain how, for example, a recording of someone making a threat to one of the other Sandy Hook parents was directly relevant to his client’s mental anguish caused by the the “sick and disgusting” conduct of Reynal’s client.
Reynal was left to imply that perhaps the real damage was done by mainstream media coverage or perhaps the stress of the case itself. Wouldn’t the plaintiffs be better able to start healing if they weren’t sitting in court today? Perhaps they should have taken Alex Jones up on his offer to sit down and work through their trauma with him.
Yes, Reynal actually suggested this to the psychiatrist.
Reynal also managed to get himself yelled at, both in and outside the presence of the jury, for mischaracterizing the amount of time Infowars spent sliming the plaintiffs. In point of fact, no one knows exactly how many broadcasts mentioned Heslin and Lewis, since the defendant refused to cooperate with discovery. The matter came to a head with Bankston accusing Reynal of trying to provoke a mistrial and announcing that he’d be moving for sanctions — something he’s already done in the Texas case which has yet to go to trial.
“I know you know what the rules are, you know you know what the rules are, and you have not chosen to follow them on occasion,” Judge Gamble warned Reynal, promising to take up any motion for sanctions at the conclusion of the trial.
The day ended with the defense promising to put his client on the witness stand either today or tomorrow. Because what could possible go wrong, right?
Liz Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.