By Matthew Rasmussen and Ryan Frye
The inadvertent release by Alex Jones’ legal team of gigabytes of data from his cell phone to the opposing legal counsel during a defamation trial has incited discussions far beyond the Texas courtroom. The repercussions of the cell phone mishap are reverberating from the Washington D.C. committee investigating the January 6th attack on the capital to the conspiracy theorist much closer to home. This blog will explore the key takeaways from the attorney’s blunder in sending about eight months of text messages and other communication data from Alex Jones’ mobile phone to the prosecution. First, some background on Alex Jones and why is he on trial for defaming the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims.
The Man Behind the Cell Phone
Alex Jones is the controversial founder of InfoWars, a far-right radio and internet conspiracy website. Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories purport antigovernment ideologies. His dogma triggers misinformation campaigns that have had far-reaching implications. He has created a financial empire selling disinformation alongside self-help dietary products. His uncorroborated allegations incite his believers to harass and threaten innocent people on the internet and in person, going so far as to threaten death. One of the many conspiracies Alex Jones has marketed was that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax engineered by the United States government to take away the guns of Americans. The backlash from the propaganda Alex Jones propagated on InfoWars contributed to the decision by parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims to file defamation lawsuits against Alex Jones and InfoWars.
Civil Lawsuits Against Alex Jones
The defamation trial which led to the cell phone dump against Alex Jones occurred in Austin, Texas, in August 2022 after he was previously found liable of the defamation. The August trial was scheduled to determine the amount of compensatory and punitive damages Alex Jones would be required to pay the plaintiffs for falsely asserting to his InfoWars audience that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was not real and that grieving parents were crisis actors hired by the U.S. government to impede gun rights. The lawsuit alleged that Jones’ conspiratorial claims caused his listeners to harass the victims’ families for several years on the internet and in person; including death threats directed towards the victims’ parents. During the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney confronted Jones about his contradictory testimony.
The plaintiff’s attorney revealed that the legal team representing Alex Jones’ accidentally provided the contents of his mobile phone to the opposing legal team; the release of which exposed texts and other evidence inconsistent with his prior testimony. The revelation of the unexpected release of the text messages, emails, and photographs had significant ripple effects for the trial and beyond.
First Key Takeaway: Significant Damages Awarded to Victims
The jury awarded the Sandy Hook parents in the defamation trial $45.2 million in punitive damages and $4.1 million in compensatory damages. The presiding judge reprimanded Alex Jones for his lack of truthfulness in his testimony, discrepancies at least in part uncovered as a result of information provided by the digital contents of the cell phone. A defamation litigation expert not involved in the trial in question told Reuters that Alex Jones’ lack of truthfulness, uncovered by the text messages and emails, could have played a role in the dramatic punitive damages awarded by the jury. The expert asserted punitive damages are generally more closely aligned with compensatory damages. Alex Jones has two future defamation trials concerning Sandy Hook victims, and the cell phone misstep might have additional implications in those proceedings.
Second Key Takeaway: Possible Perjury Charges
Despite the cell phone evidence contradicting Alex Jones’ prior courtroom testimony in the defamation lawsuit in which he fervently denied under oath having Sandy Hook messages on his phone; legal experts assert it is unlikely he will face perjury charges. Legal pundits in Texas indicate that perjury charges are uncommon in Texas, even in civil lawsuits where a person is caught falsely testifying. Reuters reported however that prosecutors in Travis County, a liberal bastion where Jones’ InfoWars radio and webcast is located, might be inclined to prosecute Jones in reaction to his provocative behaviors during the trial. Jones could be charged with aggravated perjury, a felony, because his testimony occurred while he was in a courtroom, as opposed to being given when he was in a disposition or when providing a police statement. Regardless of whether criminal charges are filed, the release of the digital records hopefully might convince his supporters that his truthfulness and pontificating should be questioned.
Third Key Takeaway: The Important Role of Electronic Discovery
Electronic discovery, referred to as e-discovery, is a “digital investigation that attempts to find evidence in email, business communications, and other data that can be used in litigation or other criminal proceedings”. While detractors of Alex Jones were likely entertained by his legal team’s gaffe, attorneys familiar with e-Discovery understand not only the overall significance of digital investigation, but also the risk of error that can occur when dealing with e-Discovery. This is especially true considering the frequency and depth of digital investigation in litigation. The mobile phone mistake brought to the public’s attention the critical role e-Discovery plays in the justice system and certainly the risks involved.
The huge impact of discovery on trial proceeding was recently highlighted again during Alex Jones’ second Sandy Hook Elementary School damages trial in Connecticut. At the start of the trial, the judge ruled that failure by Alex Jones’ legal team to provide Google Analytics data regarding InfoWars to the plaintiffs means the attorneys cannot argue during the trial that Alex Jones and InfoWars did not substantially profit from their Sandy Hook coverage. During the sanctions ruling, the judge asserted that discovery omissions by Alex Jones and Infowars demonstrates that they have a, “stunningly cavalier attitude with respect to their discovery obligations” and acknowledged their “obstructive discovery practices” will impact their ability to limit the total damages the company will be required to pay.
According to Bloomberg Law, the attorney responsible for the data release could face professional discipline, despite filing an emergency motion to take back the texts; asserting the cell phone records were inadvertently sent by a paralegal. However, Texas’ professional legal rules state that attorneys being knowledgeable about the “benefits and risks of the technology they use is part of being a competent lawyer”. The legal team might also face disciplinary actions for the release of plaintiffs’ medical records, which was also allegedly part of the data dump.
Fourth Key Takeaway: Phone Records Head to Washington D.C.
The January 6th Committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capital is finally in possession of Alex Jones’ digital cellular records. The committee was granted the request for the records after the plaintiff’s attorney revealed the trove of digital records available. The presiding judge in the Texas civil trial denied a request by Alex Jones’ legal team to seal the phone records, stating the committee could subpoena the records. The committee hopes Alex Jones’ text messages could possibly disclose information which he allegedly did not reveal during his deposition. In fact, the conspiracy theorist was said to have asserted on his show that he exercised his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent “almost 100 times”. Although Alex Jones and his supporters marched to the U.S. Capital on January 6th, he has not been charged with anything having to do with the attacks. The available digital communication might shed light on the role Alex Jones or his associates played in the attack on the Capitol capital or possibly provide additional areas of inquiry for the committee to investigate. Presently, it is unclear whether the text messages will be helpful to the investigating committee since the most recent messages from the phone are from mid-2020. Nevertheless, the contents of the text messages, emails, and photographs might already have some of the talk show host’s close associates squirming.
Fifth Key Takeaway: Be Very Careful What You Text
Text messages and other communications on the phone were identified as coming from well-known associates of the InfoWars host. In fact, it seems like Alex Jones and Roger Stone enjoy texting about topics other than politics. As reported by Vanity Fair, attorneys for the plaintiffs advised that an intimate photograph of Alex Jones’ wife was found on the digital records and the photograph had been sent to Roger Stone. Whether the intimate photograph was consensual is unknown. Another texting buddy of Alex Jones was revealed to be Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The two friends are reported to have exchanged daily text messages, and the thought raised by many in the media is if one considers what these men say publicly, one can only imagine what they would text privately.
Most Important Takeaway: Truth and Justice Prevails
The revelation that eight months of Alex Jones’ digital cell phone footprint was erroneously sent to the prosecution in his defamation trial was momentous for various reasons beyond the courtroom. Discussions of perjury; increased punitive and compensatory damages; e-Discovery pressures; January 6th Congressional Committee questions; and even gossip about intimate photos no one really cares about have caused quite a stir in the court of public opinion. However, through all the chatter, what the most important takeaway is that truthfulness has prevailed in the American courtroom.
The release of the cell phone records allowed for Alex Jones’ untruthful assertations that he did not have information about Sandy Hook on his phone to be exposed. Digital discovery had a significant place in uncovering the deceit. The parents of the victims received some justice and vindication from the onslaught of lies and abuse. Alex Jones might even face perjury charges or at least the specter of perjury allegations. The key takeaway from the cell phone fiasco is that sometimes honesty and fairness prevail. At least for a moment, Alex Jones’ perpetration of lies about Sandy Hook was exposed for the world to hear.