By DAVE COLLINS and PAT EATON-ROBB
WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Seven days into his trial for calling the Sandy Hook school shooting a hoax, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is expected make his first courtroom appearance and begin testifying Thursday, as he and his lawyer try to limit damages he must pay to families who lost loved ones in the massacre.
Jones has been in Connecticut this week in preparation for his testimony, but appeared only briefly in the courthouse Tuesday and did not enter the courtroom. The Infowars host has bashed the proceedings as a “travesty justice” and the judge as a “tyrant” in comments outside the courthouse in Waterbury, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the scene of the 2012 shooting in Newtown.
Twenty first graders and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Several victims’ relatives, meanwhile, have given emotional testimony during the trial about being traumatized by people calling the shooting fake, including confrontations at their homes and in public and messages including death and rape threats. The plaintiffs include an FBI agent who responded to the shooting and relatives of eight of the victims.
Judge Barbara Bellis last year found Jones liable by default for damages to plaintiffs without a trial, as punishment for what she called his repeated failures to turn over documents to their lawyers. The six-member jury only will be deciding how much Jones and Free Speech Systems, Infowars’ parent company, should pay the families for defaming them and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
Bellis said in court on Wednesday that she was prepared to handle any incendiary testimony from Jones, with contempt of court proceedings if necessary.
Bellis also was expected to tell Jones, when he first takes the stand and with the jury not in the courtroom, what topics he cannot talk about — including free speech rights and the Sandy Hook families $73 million settlement earlier this year with gun maker Remington, which made the Bushmaster rifle used to kill the victims at Sandy Hook.
Jones also was found liable by default in two similar lawsuits over the hoax lies in his hometown of Austin, Texas, where a jury in one of the trials ordered Jones last month to pay nearly $50 million in damages to the parents of one of the children killed. A third trial in Texas is expected to begin near the end of the year.
When Jones faced the Texas jury last month and testified under oath, he toned down his rhetoric. He said he realized the hoax lies were irresponsible and the school shooting was “100% real.”
“I unintentionally took part in things that did hurt these people’s feelings,” testified Jones, who also acknowledged raising conspiracy claims about other mass tragedies, from the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings to the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, “and I’m sorry for that.”
Jones had portrayed the Sandy Hook shooting as staged by crisis actors as part of gun control efforts.
Testimony at the current trial also has focused on website analytics data run by Infowars employees showing how its sales of dietary supplements, food, clothing and other items spiked around the time Jones talked about the Sandy Hook shooting.
Evidence, including internal Infowars emails and depositions, also shows dissention within the company about pushing the hoax lies.
Jones’ lawyer Norman Pattis is arguing that any damages should be limited and accused the victims’ relatives of exaggerating the harm the lies caused them.
The relatives have testified that they continue to fear for their safety because of what the hoax believers have done and might do.
Jennifer Hensel, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Richman was among the slain, testified Wednesday that she still monitors her surroundings, even checking the back seat of her car, for safety reasons. She said she is trying to shield her two children, ages 7 and 5, from the hoax lies. A juror cried during her testimony.
“They’re so young,” she said of her children. “Their innocence is so beautiful right now. And at some point there are a horde of people out there who could hurt them.”
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