A Dane County jury began hearing testimony Monday on how much money, if any, a longtime conspiracy theorist from the village of Oregon should have to pay the father of a boy killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Circuit Judge Frank Remington in June ruled that James Fetzer had defamed the father, Leonard Pozner, by asserting in the 2016 edition of a book he co-authored and edited and in a blog post that Pozner circulated a fabricated copy of his son Noah’s death certificate.
Noah Pozner, at age 6, was the youngest victim of the Sandy Hook shootings that left 27 people dead. Fetzer, a professor emeritus of philosophy from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, claims the massacre never happened but was instead an event staged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of an Obama administration effort to enact tighter gun restrictions.
Pozner is seeking $1 million in damages.
In her opening statement, Pozner’s attorney, Genevieve Zimmerman, told the jury of 10 women and four men that “we are not asking this jury to hold Mr. Fetzer responsible for what happened to Noah.”
But she said Pozner was seeking to hold Fetzer responsible for what he’s said because “saying false things matters, lying about other people matters, harming people matters.”
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the shooting, Pozner was “unable to complete the grieving process” because of the statements Fetzer made in his book, she said.
In videotaped testimony, forensic psychiatrist Roy Lubit said that in the years immediately after Noah’s death, Pozner was “pulling out of things (and) doing better.”
That changed when he became the subject of harassment and allegations by Sandy Hook deniers, he said, and Fetzer’s accusation “caused him a great deal of distress.”
Lubit, who is acting as a pro bono expert witness for Pozner’s legal team, said Pozner has chronic PTSD and the dissemination of accusations that he’s part of a Sandy Hook hoax “impairs his ability to feel safe in the world.”
“If that had not happened, if people just left him alone, he would not now be suffering from PTSD,” he said.
The jury is to view the videotaped cross-examination of Lubit on Tuesday.
In his own opening statement, Fetzer’s attorney, Richard Bolton, projected the four defamatory statements from Fetzer’s book and blog on a screen and sought to sow doubt about the impact of the statements and emotional harm they reportedly caused.
The damages being claimed are “emotional distress-type damages,” Bolton said, “and there’s no MRI for that. There’s no blood test for that. There’s no range-of-motion test for that.”
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Pozner’s symptoms are “basically self-reported,” he said, and “to claim disabling PTSD from these four statements is exaggerated.”
Bolton also said there’s no evidence that anything Fetzer wrote caused anyone to harass Pozner, and that the presence of defamation doesn’t mean damages must be awarded.
He called Fetzer’s book “provocative” but also “a serious book of academic research,” and said Pozner’s lawsuit is part of a broader effort to silence Sandy Hook deniers.
Pozner, who now lives in Florida, and other Sandy Hook parents have a defamation case pending against right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his show “Infowars.”
Fetzer has also advanced conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 attacks, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the shootings in Parkland, Florida, and other events.
Fetzer last month was found in contempt of court for sharing a confidential deposition of Pozner with fellow Sandy Hook “researchers” and ordered to make attempts to get the document back, as well as to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys $7,000 to cover the cost of bringing the contempt complaint.
Another of Pozner’s attorneys, Jacob Zimmerman, confirmed that the payment had been made. In an Oct. 10 letter to the court, Bolton said he had been able to get two of the people Fetzer shared the deposition with to destroy transcripts of it, but one of them refused to delete images of Pozner contained in the deposition.
Jacob Zimmerman has said his client sought to keep personal health and financial information in the deposition private, but also wanted to avoid providing fodder to conspiracy theorists who could pose a threat to Pozner and his family. In 2017, a Florida woman who believed Sandy Hook was a hoax was sentenced to five months in federal prison for threatening Pozner.
Pozner had originally sued Fetzer and his co-editor on “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook,” Mike Palecek, along with Wrongs Without Wremeidies LLC, which published the book under the name Moon Rock Books.
Those defendants later reached out-of-court settlements with Pozner — Wrongs Without Wremedies in June and Palecek last month. Terms of the settlements were not disclosed.
Palecek, in a statement provided by Jacob Zimmerman, said “the court has ruled that the death certificate of Noah Pozner is not a fabrication as stated in the book ‘Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.’ I accept the court’s ruling without appeal, and I apologize for any resulting distress that I may have caused.”
The trial continues on Tuesday.
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to specify that the defamatory statements came from James Fetzer's book and blog.]