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Sandy Hook families testify about threats, fear of deniers

Two parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre and the daughter of the school’s slain principal testified Wednesday of the fear and pain they have suffered from being targeted with threats by those who believe the lie that the shooting was a hoax

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WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — Two parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre and the daughter of the school's slain principal testified Wednesday of the fear and pain they have suffered from being targeted with threats by those who believe the lie that the shooting was a hoax.

David Wheeler, Jennifer Hensel and Erica Lafferty are among those suing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for promoting the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories on his media platforms, including his Infowars web show.

The plaintiffs, who gave often emotional testimony, say Jones’ promotion of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories on his show led the them being threatened by deniers of the shooting, including some who claimed their loved ones never existed. They say they’ve endured death threats and in-person harassment, video recording by strangers and abusive comments on social media. Some families moved to avoid harassment.

“There are days when grief is just so awful,” said Hensel, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle Richman was among those slain. “Then you add on the idea that people think you made all this up for money or that your child didn't exist. That compounds everything.”

One of the jurors wept as Hensel testified and was comforted by another panel member.

Judge Barbara Bellis last year found Jones and Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, liable by default for failing to turn over documents in the case. The jury, seated in a courthouse about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from where the massacre occurred, is now hearing evidence to determine how much Jones should pay in damages.

Lafferty, who says she's moved five times since the shooting and avoids going out to grocery stores and other public places, testified she's endured death and rape threats from people telling her that her mother was fictional.

She said she became part of the lawsuit so that her niece would know the truth.

“I wanted to make sure that I was at least taking steps to make sure the first thing that came up when she Googled her grandmother's name wasn't that she never existed,” she said. “Because those kids deserve better than that.”

David Wheeler, the father of 6-year-old victim Ben Wheeler, detailed two instances in which people actually showed up at his home — one demanding to see Ben, insisting that he was alive.

He said people also pointed to a student film he made in college as proof he was a “crisis actor.”

“It’s very stressing,” he said of the accusations. “It kind of makes you second guess everything.”

“It was demeaning. It felt like being delegitimized in a way,” he added. “It makes you feel like you don’t matter.”

The trial is being streamed live by the website Law & Crime, which on Tuesday disabled the comments section of its YouTube stream.

“Unfortunately, as the Alex Jones trial got underway, we noticed a disturbing number of commenters making threatening comments including harassment towards the victims’ families,” said Rachel Stockman, Law & Crime’s president. “As a result, we decided to disable the comments section for this trial. Despite having covered many controversial cases, we have never before taken such a drastic measure. It also was not a tough call here.”

Jones is expected to testify on his own behalf Thursday. He held a news conference Wednesday to once again argue that he was being victimized by the trial, where he will not be allowed to assert that he is “innocent” because he already has been found liable.

“I've come here and for six years said I believe it happened and apologize if I caused pain,” he said. “But the truth is, I didn't create the story and I didn't create the distrust in the system that led in cause to this.”

The judge said she is prepared to handle any incendiary testimony from the Infowars host when he is called to the stand and planned to speak with Jones prior to his testimony to make sure he understands the court's rulings.

“If we do have an issue, Mr. Jones will be dealt with just like any other witness or party to appear before the court,” she said. “He's not going to get special treatment. He's not going to get more harsh treatment.”

Jones has complained that he was found “guilty” without trials. There is no guilt in civil trials, including this one in Connecticut and one last month in Texas where a jury in a separate defamation lawsuit against Jones awarded nearly $50 million to the parents of one of the children killed in the shooting.

Norm Pattis, Jones' lawyer, cross-examined the family members about their views on gun control. He plans to argue that they are overstating their damage claims because of their political beliefs.

Lafferty denied that was a motive.

“This case has been brought because there have been lies about me and my family and they would not stop,” she said.

On Tuesday, a federal bankruptcy judge in Texas dismissed Jones’ attorney and the chief restructuring officer in that case, citing a lack of transparency by the company in disclosing financial information. He also gave more power to a federally-appointed trustee who has been monitoring the case, and authorized the trustee to hire additional legal help.

Jones said Wednesday that Free Speech systems is working closely with the trustee and will work quickly to obtain new representation.

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