One of the more taxing elements of life in America in 2022 is that everything feels like a performance. Politicians perform for the approval of the base, saying things we know they don’t believe in their hearts. Brands perform as if they possess the cultural values of the customers they seek, celebrities perform a kind of relatability to their fans, and everyone under the age of fifty seems to perform an online persona that may only vaguely resemble who they really are. All of American life feels like kabuki theater, and our shared inability to trust in the authenticity of anyone we see carries a heavy psychic toll.
With that in mind, what occurred in an Austin courtroom last Wednesday was, weirdly, kind of refreshing. The opposing lead lawyers in the first of three trials to determine what damages Alex Jones owes to Sandy Hook families he defamed—Houston attorneys F. Andino Reynal and Mark Bankston—acted like they definitely wanted to smack the crap out of each other as soon as Judge Maya Guerra Gamble left the courtroom.
The two attorneys had been on unfriendly but cordial terms for the past several months. Reynal is a newcomer to the case, the eleventh attorney to represent Jones in the case (or tenth, or twelfth, or higher, depending on whether you count some lawyers whose names appeared only on paperwork, or who worked for the defense in an informal capacity). Reynal entered the picture for the first time at a hearing on March 10, when he served as cocounsel to Jones’s previous attorney, a Round Rock mediation lawyer named Jacquelyn Blott. An unusual situation around an allegation of evidence-tampering preceded Blott’s departure from the case—a redacted document the defense turned over to the plaintiffs on order of the court had been reduced from multiple pages to a single sheet of paper, which removed the email addresses of the document’s recipients and changed the context of the evidence. Not long after the March hearing, Reynal assumed the lead role in Jones’s defense.
Reynal and Bankston had some contentious moments from the start. At his first hearing on the case in March, supporting Blott, Reynal accused Bankston of filing “ticky-tacky” motions. The following month, Bankston claimed in court that Reynal had heckled him outside the courthouse after the March hearing, vowing that Bankston and his clients would never see a dime—a reference, Bankston believed, to an aborted bankruptcy gambit that Jones attempted in late April, shortly before the Austin damages trial had initially been scheduled to begin. (Last week, Jones put his Infowars parent company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, bringing the total tally of his business entities that have declared themselves broke to four.)
Reynal, unlike some of his predecessors, is a lawyer who brings a degree of relevant experience to the difficult task of defending Jones. He’s a former federal prosecutor (appointed by President Obama, no less) who, in private practice, switched his focus to criminal defense. Unlike other attorneys who’ve worked the case—such as occasional Infowars guest Robert Barnes, or Jones’s notorious Connecticut representative Norm Pattis—Reynal isn’t an Alex Jones true believer. He told me that while he knew who Jones was before he took the case, he had never watched the show. Inside the courtroom, he’s not allowed to bring up the First Amendment, since it doesn’t protect defamatory speech, which the court ruled Jones’s remarks were. But outside the courtroom, he says that’s what interested him in the case.
“I’m not just defending Alex from aggrieved parents of Sandy Hook victims, I’m defending him from an entire structure that has maligned him and painted him as a monster, when he isn’t,” Reynal told me in an interview on Monday afternoon. I asked him if he imagines himself as a crusading attorney standing with the reviled—a Bill Kunstler figure—and he said, “I definitely take a lot of inspiration from that. I watched that Chicago 7 movie with my daughter and I thought it was fantastic.” But of course, Reynal is not defending his client from the full power of the state, as Kunstler was—he’s defending someone who claimed that a six-year-old boy who was murdered never existed and that his parents were crisis actors working to advance a false-flag conspiracy. “I came in to pick it up and tried to make the right arguments,” Reynal said of Jones’s case.
Finding the right arguments has been a challenge. From the first moment he walked into the courtroom, Reynal has been on the side that already lost the case. At times, he has been a smooth, effective operator in the courtroom—cross-examining an expert witness who overstepped in his testimony to address subjects beyond his area of expertise, for example, or attempting to impeach another with tweets she had posted years earlier. He also brought a novel approach to jury selection, facilitating a discussion among the prospective jurors that inspired many of the members of the pool —including those he preferred to see disqualified—to identify themselves, simply by giving them a chance to speak. He’s well-spoken, capable of beginning an off-the-cuff remark to the judge with a quote from Oscar Wilde. And he looks more or less like what you might expect a well-heeled, high-priced criminal defense lawyer to look like in a movie.
In a lot of ways, though, Reynal is screwed. He may be a good lawyer, but he’s also Jones’s eleventh (or so) lawyer in the case—as Gamble is fond of reminding him. “If you choose to join a case as the eleventh attorney, you are responsible for what every attorney before you has done,” as the judge put it in the March hearing. Reynal joined Jones’s defense after Infowars had already lost the case in a default judgment, which came after the defendants frustrated the judge by failing to prepare for depositions, refusing to fully comply with discovery requests, and otherwise behaving poorly in the eyes of the court. Only the damages were left to be determined.
Reynal is also stuck with the clients that he has, which tarnishes him by association. When, for example, Infowars producer Daria Karpova— scheduled to begin her witness testimony at 9 a.m. on Tuesday—failed to arrive in the courtroom until nearly 9:15, Gamble made clear that she held Reynal responsible for the failure to inform the witness that punctuality is a cardinal rule of court. (She also subtracted the time it took for Karpova to arrive from the amount of time Reynal is allowed to make his case.)
At the end of the court day last Thursday, Gamble questioned Infowars host Owen Shroyer about whether he was informed of the rule preventing witnesses from discussing the case with anyone other than their lawyers—and if so, had he been made aware of that before or after he and Jones spent a long segment on Infowars talking all about what was going on in her courtroom? Shroyer said that he hadn’t been informed, and Reynal apologized for “misunderstanding” the rule, prompting Gamble to mock him from the bench: “You’re just a brand-new lawyer, right? Enough with the ‘aw-shucks, I don’t know the rules of the court.’”
Watching Reynal struggle in court to deal with his clients’ behavior, with the limitations of defending a case he lost before he entered it, and with the long-simmering frustrations of a judge who’s seen enough of shenanigans from the Infowars side fills one with the same kind of secondhand embarrassment you’d get watching the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office eight hours a day, on a loop. “It’s very difficult,” Reynal told me, “when you have a judge that’s hostile.”
Bankston, for the most part, has an easier task. He’s already won the case, and his opponent is hamstrung by rules that are in place because of decisions Reynal’s predecessors made. Bankston doesn’t have to attempt to prove to the jury that Jones’s speech wasn’t protected by the First Amendment, for example, because the judge determined that before the jury was even empaneled. He can use many hours of depositions from Infowars witnesses who were not properly prepared to give their testimony, all of which was recorded over the previous several years. Bankston got involved in the case after he was contacted by his clients, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the extremely sympathetic parents of Jesse Lewis, who was murdered at Sandy Hook. And he has fact exhibits he’s able to present in which the defendants say vile things about Heslin and Lewis, and about the circumstances under which they lost their son.
In court, Bankston’s demeanor is downright solicitous toward the judge, and—unlike Reynal—he never forgets to stand when addressing Her Honor and he hasn’t been caught chewing gum in her courtroom. Where Reynal seems to enjoy rhetorical flourishes and showing off how erudite he is, Bankston favors plain language and seeks to form a connection with witnesses, even hostile ones, by finding some topic on which they can agree. (During a deposition with Jones last December, the two bonded, briefly, over a shared distrust of the mainstream media, and Bankston performed sympathy for the legal trouble Jones was in with the House committee investigating January 6.)
There is one challenge Bankston faces that is difficult to surmount, however: he has to convince Texas jurors, who can be notoriously stingy, that the appropriate damages in this case are $150 million—which would make it one of the larger defamation sums awarded against a media company, $10 million more than the famous judgment Hulk Hogan received over a sex tape published by Gawker. Bankston arrived at the number, he explained during his opening argument, by citing a poll that found that 24 percent of Americans believed Sandy Hook was a hoax. That amounts to roughly 75 million folks, and Bankston’s rationale for doubling the number is that, because Jones was the chief media figure who drove that idea, Heslin and Lewis are owed one dollar in compensation for everyone who believes that they were part of a conspiracy, and another dollar in punitive damages for each of those Americans as well.
Back in March, Bankston told me that even getting the jury to understand what happened in this case—from the issues they’re there to settle to the very nature of the default judgment itself—was going to be a uniquely difficult thing. “There’s never been a trial like this,” he told me. “There were rules broken here in a way that the world has never seen before. And the trial itself is going to be different than anything the world’s ever seen before. So we’re all flying blind.”
Bankston didn’t build his career litigating highly unusual defamation cases; rather, he spent much of it representing clients injured because their tires burst on the road, winning large judgments against tire manufacturers. (His firm still owns the web domain TheTireLawyers.com.) Do the courtroom techniques used to convince a jury that a nine-figure award is appropriate in a case of corporate negligence and physical injury translate to a case in which the defendant is one man and his wholly owned media operation, and where the damage suffered by the plaintiffs is emotional and reputational instead of harm to their bodies, which juries tend to understand more intuitively?
It is entirely possible that the jury in this case (which, based on written questions they’ve been permitted to submit to the Infowars employees who’ve testified, does not seem to think very highly of the defendants) will find Bankston persuasive, decide that Jones acted maliciously, harmed the plaintiffs, and deserved to be punished—and then decide that the appropriate award is, say, fifty grand, just because they don’t like handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to anybody.
On Wednesday afternoon, the challenges both attorneys face boiled over into a direct confrontation. Reynal had made multiple references in front of the jury to Bankston and his cocounsel as “the personal injury lawyers,” which he spoke as though it were an epithet. After the jury had left the room, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs requested that Gamble instruct Reynal to knock it off. The judge agreed that Reynal was using the phrase as a pejorative. Reynal agreed to stop, then added, “But they are personal injury lawyers. And they’re dishonest,” referring to a disagreement over what evidence both parties had agreed to allow. Gamble admonished him for the insult, warned everyone to cool off after an emotional day, and left the courtroom.
Afterward, Reynal turned to Bankston, showed him his middle finger, and once more called him a liar. The two got into each other’s faces, until one of the larger members of the plaintiffs’ team intervened, urging both attorneys to calm down and finish their discussion over the phone that evening. (Bankston told me the following day that the two did talk, and that Reynal apologized.)
In the days since, the two attorneys have demonstrated more collegiality in court. But considering the dramatic nature of the earlier confrontation, which Judge Gamble said on Monday would have resulted in contempt charges had she been in the room, anything else would be downright shocking. Even still, on Monday, Bankston mentioned to Judge Gamble that he was considering a motion for sanctions against Reynal after the trial was over, and accused his opponent of behaving poorly in court in pursuit of a mistrial.
Given the subject of the trial, the contrast between the grief and loss suffered by the Sandy Hook parents and the bombast of Alex Jones, and the enormous stakes for each side, it probably would have been a mistake to expect anything other than an emotionally heated courtroom this summer in Texas.