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Jury Awards $450,000 to Sandy Hook Father in Defamation Case Against Conspiracy Theorist

By Daniela Abratt

On October 16, 2019, a jury in Dane County, Wisconsin decided that a Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist must pay a grieving father almost half a million dollars for his denial that the Sandy Hook massacre occurred. Pozner v. Fetzer, et al.

James Fetzer was ordered to pay $450,000 after a jury found him liable for defamation for falsely claiming that Leonard Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah died at Sandy Hook Elementary School, fabricated Noah's death certificate.

Noah was the youngest of the victims who were killed in the December 14, 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that day, numerous conspiracy theorists circulated rumors alleging that the shooting was a hoax perpetrated by the Obama administration, the children were hired actors, and that no one actually died.

Pozner claimed victory in a statement after the verdict was announced: "Mr. Fetzer has the right to believe that Sandy Hook never happened," he said. "He has the right to express his ignorance. This award, however, further illustrates the difference between the right of people like Mr. Fetzer to be wrong and the right of victims like myself and my child to be free from defamation, free from harassment and free from the intentional infliction of terror."

This case is just one example of a slew of defamation litigation arising from Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. Pozner is also one of a number of parents suing Infowars host and prolific right-wing conspiracy peddler, Alex Jones, in Texas for repeatedly insisting that the shooting was a hoax to promote gun control and that the children were crisis actors. Another suit is currently pending against Jones in Connecticut by relatives of five children and three adults killed in the shooting, along with one F.B.I. agent who responded to the scene. Both cases are currently in the discovery stages. Alex Jones has recently lost some key motions that now require him to divulge certain business records and to produce specific company representatives for deposition.

Suit Against Fetzer

Pozner filed the Wisconsin suit in November 2018, which centered on claims made in the book "Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control." He named three defendants: (1) Fetzer, who served as an editor for two editions of the book as well as a co-author of the chapter "Are Sandy Hook Skeptics Delusional with 'Twisted Minds'"; (2) Mike Palecek, an additional editor of the same book; and (3) Wrongs Without Remedies, LLC, which published the book under the name Moon Rock Books Publishing.

Pozner alleged that in the first edition of the book, Fetzer claimed that Noah did not actually die at Sandy Hook, that Noah was not a real person, and that Noah was not Pozner's son. The complaint also quotes various lines from a second, expanded version of the book that claimed Noah's death certificate was a fake and that Pozner had circulated a version that had clearly been manipulated. This accusation was then repeated in a number of Fetzer's blog posts.

To support his claims, Pozner produced an official death certificate for Noah issued by the Connecticut Department of Health as well as DNA evidence proving that he was Noah's father.

In April, both Pozner and Fetzer filed motions for summary judgment. Representing himself pro se, Fetzer argued truth as a defense. He asserted that the version of the death certificate he had received and ultimately published in his book was different from the one Pozner presented to the court; the one Fetzer received was not certified and contained inconsistent fonts and hand-drawn boxes and borders. Such differences, Fetzer claimed, led him to believe the death certificate had been forged.

But the court disagreed. In June, the court found that plausible explanations existed for the variations in the death certificates and that the substance in each remained the same. The court ultimately granted Pozner's motion for partial summary judgment on liability and ruled that as a matter of law, Fetzer and Palecek defamed Pozner by alleging that he faked the death certificate to promote the conspiracy, and permitted the case to go to a jury for a damages determination.

Prior to the hearing on summary judgment, Pozner reached a settlement with the publishing company. Dave Gahary, the principal officer from Moon Rock Books Publishing, told NPR that as part of the settlement, he agreed to stop selling the book. In an interview with the New York Times, he also apologized for his personal role in the conspiracy: "I came away from that believing that [Pozner] was telling the truth," he said. "And I felt personally bad for anything that I had done to contribute to his misery."

Pozner similarly settled out of court in September with Palecek.

At trial, Pozner claimed that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the shooting, which was exacerbated by the lies in the book and the subsequent, repeated harassment by people who similarly believed that Sandy Hook was a staged event. For example, Pozner received death threats online and in voicemails from one such believer in Florida, who was later convicted and sentenced to five months in federal prison for the threats. At defendant's sentencing, Senior Judge James Cohn of the Southern District of Florida stated: "Your words were cruel and insensitive. This is reality and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts."

Fetzer newly retained counsel argued that Pozner could not prove that the threats were a direct cause of the statements in the books and that he had offered no proof that those statements had been read by those who threatened him. But the jury listened to an interview in which Fetzer said that the ebook had been downloaded more than 10 million times, with 3,000 hard copies sold.

After nearly four-hour of deliberation, the jury determined that $450,000 was the price to pay for Fetzer's conspiracy theory. At the time of the verdict, lawyers for Fetzer called the damages amount "absurd" and said they planned to appeal.

Daniela Abratt is an associate at Thomas & LoCicero in Fort Lauderdale.

 
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