AUSTIN, Texas — For 90 searing minutes in a courtroom on Tuesday, a Sandy Hook mother brought the conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones face-to-face with the havoc she said his lies about the mass shooting that killed her son had wrought on her family and on the national discourse.
“Truth — truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse, 6, was among the 20 first graders and six educators killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., told Mr. Jones from the witness stand.
Mr. Jones has questioned the events at Sandy Hook, but “you know that’s not true,” she said, staring at him while he fidgeted at the defense table. “When you say those things, there’s a fringe of society that believe you that are actually dangerous.”
It was a remarkable moment in the long-running legal battles between the Sandy Hook families and the Infowars fabulist, who for years broadcast lies that the shooting was a government hoax and that the families were “actors” in the plot. Mr. Jones, who has regularly berated the families on the air, has rarely appeared in the same room as them, even as he has been found liable in a series of defamation suits brought by the families of 10 victims.
The trial involving Ms. Lewis and Neil Heslin, Jesse’s father, is the first of three in which juries will decide how much Mr. Jones must pay for defaming the families. Mr. Jones has mostly avoided showing up in court. But through an accident of scheduling as he prepared to testify in his defense, he wound up face-to-face with Ms. Lewis, who addressed him personally throughout her testimony.
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
Enduring grief. A brutal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 was among the deadliest in the country’s history, and it has fundamentally changed its gun politics. Here’s what to know:
A devastating attack. On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother and then walked into the elementary school armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. He killed 26 people there, 20 of them children, before killing himself.
The push for gun control. Then-President Barack Obama vowed to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop such massacres from happening again. Though legislative efforts to pass a ban on assault weapons and expand background checks failed, a new wave of activism focused on gun control gained traction following the shooting.
An important win. On Feb. 15, Remington, the maker of the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack, agreed in a settlement to pay $73 million to the victims’ families. The suit worked around a federal law shielding gun companies from litigation by arguing that Remington had irresponsibly marketed the weapon, violating state consumer law.
Alex Jones and misinformation. Conspiracy theories that the shooting was a hoax have been amplified by the far-right broadcaster Alex Jones, who has lost several defamation lawsuits filed by families of the victims. In three separate trials, juries will decide how much Mr. Jones must pay for the suffering he caused.
“Alex, I want you to hear this,” Ms. Lewis said, fixing him in her gaze. “We’re more polarized than ever as a country. Some of that is because of you.” Mr. Jones nervously shook his head.
The Sandy Hook families have suffered years of torment and threats after Mr. Jones, beginning hours after the shooting, deemed Sandy Hook a “false flag” operation planned by the government as a pretext for confiscating Americans’ firearms.
Business records released during the proceedings indicate Mr. Jones has reaped more than $50 million annually selling diet supplements, gun paraphernalia, body armor and doomsday prepper gear by hawking conspiracy theories to millions listening to his radio and online show. Jesse Lewis’s parents are requesting $150 million in compensatory damages. More important than money, Ms. Lewis said on Tuesday, “I hope to accomplish an era of truth.”
At the heart of the trial, which is set to conclude this week, is a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” in which Ms. Kelly profiled Mr. Jones. In the broadcast, Mr. Heslin protested Mr. Jones’s denial of the shooting. He recalled his last moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Afterward, Mr. Jones and a sidekick, Owen Shroyer, implied on Infowars that Mr. Heslin was lying.
Mr. Heslin testified first on Tuesday. In a low voice and pausing frequently to weep, he described his son as an energetic boy with a booming voice, who liked to team up with his father to collect scrap metal and recyclables that he returned for spending money. When the gunman entered Jesse’s classroom, he shouted “Run!” during a pause in the shooting. Nine children ran, and survived.
Mr. Heslin said conspiracy theorists had tried to contact him by phone, confronted and shoved him on the street. Someone fired a gun into his house and car. This spring, he said, someone drove past his house and shouted “Alex Jones!” and he heard the sound of gunfire.
Glancing at Mr. Jones’s empty seat at the defense table, Mr. Heslin called his absence “a cowardly act.”
“The statements and the remarks made by both Infowars and Alex Jones have tarnished Jesse’s legacy,” he added.
While Mr. Heslin was testifying, Mr. Jones was across town broadcasting his show. After watching Mr. Heslin’s testimony on a courtroom YouTube feed, he called the grieving father “slow,” and “manipulated by some very bad people.”
An hour later, Mr. Jones turned up in court flanked by his spouse and a cadre of bodyguards. Ms. Lewis, who had seen the broadcast maligning Mr. Heslin during a break in her testimony, was waiting for him.
“I’ve had a hard time finding words today. It makes me feel astounded, in a bad way,” she told Mr. Jones. “Horrific. Horrific. Horrific.”
Mr. Jones testified after Ms. Lewis, saying that he had repeatedly tried to apologize.
Judge Maya Guerra Gamble of Travis County District Court admonished him later for lying under oath in parts of his testimony. Mr. Jones had told the jury he is “bankrupt,” even though his bankruptcy filing has yet to be adjudicated and the families’ lawyers say it is a tactic to avoid upcoming trials. He also claimed that he had complied with court orders in the defamation suits, when in fact his yearslong failure to submit documents and testimony was the reason he lost all of them.
“You’re under oath. That means things must actually be true when you say them,” Judge Guerra Gamble told Mr. Jones. He tried to interject, but she stopped him: “Don’t talk.”
After the judge left the courtroom, Mr. Jones approached Mr. Heslin and Ms. Lewis and shook their hands. Their lawyers hustled them away, and Mr. Jones exploded in anger, claiming the parents were being “controlled.”