AUSTIN (Nexstar) — An Austin jury ruled that InfoWars host Alex Jones must pay for falsely saying the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax.
Jones was ordered to pay millions in damages to the parents of a first-grader killed in the mass shooting. The ruling came just days after Jones admitted on the witness stand he now believes the shooting was 100 percent “real.”
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis lost their 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook shooting. They say they faced harassment and threats, after Jones made claims on his show the shooting was a hoax and parents were crisis actors.
Lawyers for the parents say the jury’s decision has larger implications beyond this case.
“To take the bullhorn away and to take the first steps toward taking that bullhorn away from all the others who have it or all the others who might want it, all the others who believe they can profit off of fear and misinformation,” said attorney Wesley Ball to reporters after Thursday’s decision.
Jones and his legal team argued this whole case was an attack on his First Amendment rights to free speech. They made the case that Jones is just a talk show host asking questions.
“He ran with a story he shouldn’t have about a story of national importance. The plaintiffs didn’t hear about it until years later,” said Andino Reynal, an attorney for Jones. “He has apologized, and he has apologized on that stand repeatedly, and offered to have the parents on his show.”
Attorneys for the family maintained that what Jones did was defamatory and not protected free speech. Jones was found liable for defamation before the case even began, after refusing to comply with orders to hand over evidence, documents and text messages to mount a defense.
But some evidence was released, which led to a bombshell revelation from the courtroom during this case. The attorney representing the parents revealed that the defense team mistakenly sent him two years worth of contents from Jones’s cell phone. He claimed that evidence contradicted some of what Jones said under oath in the trial, and called him a liar on the stand.
This could have implications beyond this case. The committee investigating the January 6 Capitol riot has requested Jones’ cell phone data from the parents’ attorneys. Jones’ legal team is trying to block that release.
The January 6 committee subpoenaed Jones last fall, seeking documents and testimony for their probe into the rallies that preceded the deadly attack on the Capitol.
Uvalde DA: School shooting investigation, records release could take years
In some of her first public remarks since the Robb Elementary school shooting on May 24, the Uvalde County district attorney explained why she is withholding records during a lawsuit hearing Thursday, noting the investigation could take years.
Uvalde DA Christina Mitchell Busbee answered questions in a Travis County District Court for a hearing in the lawsuit brought by Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) who sued the Texas Department of Public Safety. His lawsuit seeks various records he requested under public information laws that could provide more clarity on the emergency response following the school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers.
“I believe that we need to have a broad scope of what happened. Every adults’ actions to see if we have any criminal charges. I don’t know that at this time, but I am willing to wait to get everything to find out,” said Busbee during the hearing.
During the hearing, DPS Director Col. Steven McCraw reiterated he has not fulfilled Gutierrez’s open records requests — many of which have also been requested by Nexstar and many more media outlets — due to concerns cited by Busbee.
Busbee cited several reasons for why she believes some of these records — such as 911 phone calls, additional bodycam footage, and DPS’ policy manual for active shooter situations — mainly arguing the release could get in the way of her investigation and possible prosecution.
Both she and lawyers from the Office of Attorney General, arguing on her behalf, said releasing such records could not only interfere with her ability to build a case, but also affect witness accounts.
Aside from looking into law enforcement action that day, she suggested she was looking at prosecution for potential accomplices to the 18-year-old gunman. The House Investigative Committee’s report did not suggest that the gunman acted with the help of others and Busbee did not detail who those people may be.
“What happens is that people, witnesses, change their stories. They lawyer up. So if a suspect does not know that they are a target of an investigation, then they’re more apt to cooperate, provide statements,” she said.
Gutierrez pushed back on her suggestion of other accomplices, noting “the shooter is dead,” and the documents he is requesting doesn’t pertain to possible suspects but law enforcement response.
“I think it’s a bit preposterous. I mean, we all know that the shooter is dead. There’s no co-defendants,” the senator said in an interview with Nexstar. “What we’re trying to uncover in these open records requests are police malfeasance to a response.”
Busbee also said she was concerned about “re-traumatizing” Uvalde families by releasing some of this information.
Robert Wilson, an attorney for a victim’s family, argued parts of this investigation will not change over time and therefore the families deserve the full truth now.
“They also have a need for this information because they have their own investigation that they need to do to determine if civil rights were violated on behalf of their loved ones,” Wilson said. “These families are in limbo.”
During cross examination, McCraw said that 34 DPS troopers and other law enforcement who responded to the shooting have bodycam footage from that day. So far, only seven bodycam videos of Uvalde city police officers have been made public, after the mayor released them on July 18.
Additionally, McCraw said DPS had a drone on scene, because responders “were concerned about the subject exiting through the roof area.” That drone footage has also not been released to the public.
Nexstar reached out to DPS for additional comment on Thursday’s hearing, but did not hear back.
Judge Catherine Mauzy agreed to state attorneys’ request for post-hearing briefing up until 5 p.m. on Monday, but said she wants to make a decision “sooner rather than later.”
Texas colleges work to prevent monkeypox outbreaks among students on campus
As monkeypox cases rise across Texas, universities are thinking about proactive steps to try to prevent outbreaks.
“College students being college students may tend to engage in a little more risky behavior,” said Dr. Carolyn Bouma, associate professor of biology at West Texas A&M University.
This isn’t the first fluid situation college students have had to deal with while getting ready to be back on campus.
“Hopefully it’s not a COVID 2.0 thing,” said Wooyon Cheng, a UT Austin senior.
Some students said they hope to get more direction on a response from their universities.
“I don’t know too much about it,” UT senior Paolo Syme said. “I know now that it’s not just sexually transmittable. So, I guess I’m a little worried about people coming in here and spreading it.”
Education is going to be key — according to a handful of universities we reached out to, that’s what they’re focusing on as students make their way back to campus.
“I think greater awareness is important for the medical services to spread, much like we did with COVID,” Bouma said.
West Texas A&M said it’s working with a local health department to monitor cases in its area.
Texas State University said it is doing the same. According to a statement, Texas State also said, “Medical providers at the Student Health Center have all been updated on the clinical presentation of monkeypox and the protocol for evaluation and testing of any suspected cases.”
Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, professor and chair of the clinical laboratory science program at Texas State, said they’re monitoring the situation as it develops.
“In general, it resolves in two to four weeks,” Rohde said. “But those people need to be isolated. And they need to be interviewed to understand their close contacts…we have therapeutics, and we have vaccinations.”
Other universities that KXAN reached out to did not have concrete plans to share with us to deal with potential outbreaks.
Texas received nearly 15,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine toward the end of July. There were 80 confirmed monkeypox cases around that time. Now, not even two weeks later, the state has nearly 400 confirmed cases.
“Maybe I’ll be more careful when I go out,” Syme said. “Yeah, maybe I’ll just keep my eye out.”
So far, cases have primarily been detected among men who have sex with other men. But experts warn close contact of any kind could put you at risk.
Monkeypox vaccines are currently available through local health departments across the state, though you have to have a documented or presumed exposure to the virus in order to receive one.
“A one time opportunity” – Abbott calls for using surplus for property tax relief
Last month, we learned that Texas has a $27 billion budget surplus. Now, we’re hearing more from Governor Greg Abbott about what he thinks the state should do with that money.
Much of the surplus comes from unprecedented tax revenues; with that in mind, Abbott vowed on Thursday that most of the money would go to tax cuts.
“We will address the needs of the people of the state of Texas,” said Abbott while speaking at an event in San Angelo. “Yes, we will invest in education. Yes, we will invest in health care. Yes, we will definitely invest in school safety. But we have a one time opportunity to do more than we’ve ever done before, to reduce the price that taxpayers pay.”
“I say that we use a large chunk of this money to provide the biggest property tax cut in the history of the state of Texas,” he said to applause.
Other Republicans, like Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, have also called for using the surplus to pay for property tax relief.
“We can’t afford to wait” — Rep. Talarico asks Governor to call special session to help youth in Texas detention facilities
At juvenile detention centers in Texas, youth inmates are forced to live in conditions advocates are calling “appalling.” The Texas Tribune reported statewide staffing shortages mean children and teenagers are forced to stay in the cells for up to 23 hours a day, without water or bathroom breaks.
The employee turnover at these facilities is extremely high — around 70%. Tiffany Jones, a former youth development coach at Giddings State School, said many Texas Juvenile Justice Department employees were mistreated, often working 12 to 16-hour shifts without any restroom breaks.
Jones said she left the position after an injury received while trying to break up a fight between two teenaged inmates.
When there is a staff shortage, there are fewer employees available to keep watch over the juveniles housed at these facilities.
Barbara Kessler, a spokesperson for TJJD, said the department put a 15% pay raise in place July 1 for all direct care staff as a way to help with staffing issues.
“The agency hopes this more competitive pay scale will attract new recruits and help retain current staff, though,” said Kessler in an email to Nexstar.
“Many of these rooms do not have restrooms or running water in them. So the kids are given bottles to urinate in. This is all documented. These things are not disputed by the agency,” said Midland chief juvenile probation officer Forest Hanna.
Kessler said the department “is aware of these unfortunate incidents that occurred during times when staff was severely limited and could not safely allow youth outside of their rooms.” She also said the agency is deploying teams of employees “that rotate through short-staffed dorms to provide temporary assistance, enabling youth to leave their rooms for basic needs.”
She said the department is also shifting youth groups around facilities to ease the staffing shortage issues.
Still, advocates fear the conditions may further exacerbate the issues children face, both in the system and once they are released. Jennifer Toon, a mental health peer policy fellow for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said for those in the system with intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health issues, being locked in their cells for such long hours will affect their treatment.
“This is going to set them on a journey of self-harm and self-destruction,” Toon said. “I don’t know where in society they think that they can treat children worse than caged animals and expect them to trust people, get out and succeed without the support.”
The Texas Tribune reported self-harming incidents and suicide rates in Texas detention centers have increased substantially. Many inmates are harming themselves or attempting suicide as a cry for help to get out of their cell, the Texas Tribune reported.
According to Hanna, the youth who come to TJJD facilities already suffer from mental health issues and are there for rehabilitation.
“Because of the low staffing numbers, most of the kids over the last several months of the year have had little, if any therapy or programming,” Hanna said. “There’s a contagion effect if we have one kid that is unfortunately successful in committing a suicide. And I’m afraid we’re going to have that contagion effect.”
Both Hanna and Toon noted the current system is not helping kids once they have been released.
“We’ve seen a couple of kids that have come back to our community that were definitely in worse shape than when they went,” Hanna said.
Those looking to improve the system will be able to share their ideas for reform with lawmakers at the House Juvenile Justice Committee next Tuesday.
State Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) serves on that committee. On Thursday, he urged Governor Abbott to call a special session so lawmakers could address the issues.
“Students are in real, immediate physical danger,” Talarico said in an interview Friday. “We can’t afford to wait until next session or next year, we’ve got to take immediate action to remedy the immediate problem.”
Talarico says the problem stems from the Governor’s order to take money from TJJD and other state agencies in order to send additional funding to Operation Lone Star. In April, Gov. Abbott redirected $500-million to the border operation, including more than $30-million from TJJD.
“I was really disturbed that the governor moved that funding from a already a resource starved agency,” Talarico said. “This Juvenile Justice Department doesn’t have the funding, it needs to attract enough staff and to retain staff. And we’ve already seen what that can lead to.”
Abbott’s Press Secretary Renae Eze issued a response regarding Talarico’s statement about the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
“The safety and security of TJJD staff and youth is a top priority for Governor Abbott,” Eze said. “This is a completely inaccurate, unsubstantiated narrative that the transfer of funds negatively impacted any state agency and their ability to provide services or resources to Texans.”
“The Governor and Texas legislative leadership transferred funds solely as a placeholder, which has since been replaced. It did not impact the agency’s operational budget in any way and is not related to any operational decisions made by TJJD.”
Eze said many private and public employers, like the TJJD, were having a difficult time finding employees.
“The agency is developing their budget request for next session, and the Governor will support their request to increase the salaries needed to hire and retain a qualified workforce,” Eze said.
Talarico emphasized his belief that lawmakers need a special session to act now: “I’m hopeful that the governor will listen to my plea.”
Mother of son with autism advocates for easier entry into crucial driving program
Dave Wigton, 23, recently received an associate degree from Austin Community College. Before he is able pursue a bachelor’s in computer programming, he needs to save the money he earns from his new job at a clothing store.
Having a driver’s license and being able to get himself to work will help him achieve this goal, said Dave’s mom, Vicki Wigton. When he got his license, it freed up some of her time as well.
“It has made things easier for me, but it’s also put up a set of worries that maybe most parents don’t have,” Vicki said.
Dave was diagnosed with autism when he was 3-years-old, and his mother said he functions at a high level but still has challenges with communication. Vicki worries that if her son was pulled over for a traffic stop, the officer may not understand that Dave communicates differently than a person not on the autism spectrum.
“If he is not acting like somebody typical, (the officer) has got to do what’s in his judgment is the best thing. And, unfortunately, the best thing to defend himself may be to hurt my child,” Vicki said. “I get a deep, deep worry that the officer isn’t going to understand Dave.”
To reduce this fear, Vicki went to the Williamson County Tax Office to record Dave’s communication challenges on her vehicle registration. But when she went to submit the forms, she said she was told it was only possible when registering her vehicle for its annual renewal.
“That’s nine to eleven months that nobody knows what his disability is or what to expect if he’s stopped any time during that time period,” Vicki said.
The program that Vicki attempted to use is called the Samuel Allen law. The law is named after a Texas man diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome whose mom, Jennifer Allen, advocated for better interaction between law enforcement and people with communication impediments. A state program also was introduced in conjunction with the law to instruct law enforcement on that interaction.
If someone with communication difficulties would like to record this on their registration, they must complete an online form, print it and submit it at their local tax assessor-collector’s office.
Sgt. Bryan Washko, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said there have been instances in his agency where someone on the autism spectrum has reacted slowly at a traffic stop and raised an officer’s concern.
“You automatically think red flags. What are they trying to hide? Are they possibly wanted? Are they about to run? But, in fact, that is somebody who is on the autism spectrum (and) is just having difficulty at that moment,” Sgt. Washko said.
“The main focus is to make sure that these people are treated fairly, just like anyone else at a traffic stop,” said Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, a House sponsor of the bill that became the law.
A representative at the tax office told KXAN this was a training issue and extended apologies to the Wigton family. After our team reached out, the office asked for Vicki’s phone number, assured us the issue would be resolved and said it would soon offer more training to staff.
Though Vicki was eventually able to get Dave’s information added to her registration, Vicki feels requiring someone to go in person to utilize the Samuel Allen Law is a barrier.
“You can’t do this by mail, you can’t do it online. We register our cars online. When COVID came, we didn’t want to be out in the offices. But you cannot do (it online), you have to be in person,” Vicki said.
Martinez said it may be necessary to revisit the law.
“Oh, absolutely,” Martinez said. “(If this is) something that can be done online, maybe we should be doing it. And if it needs to be created through legislation, we’ll have to do that. And we’ll definitely consider doing that this next session.”