Mark Barden spoke in a soft voice and faced the jury while giving testimony Oct. 4. At one point, he turned to Judge Barbara Bellis and excused himself for the graphic description he was about to deliver.
Barden was one of several witnesses to take the stand in courtroom 3B of the Connecticut Superior Court building that day, part of the proceedings in Lafferty v. Jones — the civil defamation case brought by family members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Barden’s son Daniel, a first-grader, was among 20 children killed by a gunman Dec. 14, 2012. Six adult educators were also fatally shot in the massacre.
Barden testified how his family — he, his wife, Jackie, and the couple’s two surviving children — had been the victims of years of harassment and threats following Daniel’s death — including through a personal family website — and that the family’s ordeal was a result of Jones’ lies. Jones, the owner of the far-right-wing website Infowars, has claimed the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and that Barden and other victims’ family members were actors.
“This was horror beyond anything we had, could ever imagine, trying to deal with the fact that our little boy had just been shot to death in his first-grade classroom,” Barden testified. “I had a picture of one of my little days at home with Daniel. Just for fun we had a little bath in the kitchen sink. And I had taken a picture of it because it was adorable.
“And somebody came on the website saying that that picture was actually — excuse me — that was a picture of Daniel after I had dismembered him and killed him myself. And that picture was me mocking everyone else with the fact that I had murdered my son and taken a picture of him in the sink. You can’t make this up. Somebody did.
“But this is what we were all trying to deal with.”
The past eight years have been an emotional rollercoaster for Sterling and the families, with gut-wrenching courtroom moments and exhilarating legal triumphs.
“Just a very intense experience,” Sterling tells PAW. “One of the things that got me through that [Jones] trial is the sense of purpose and meaning. I understood that [the families] were under enormous pressure, emotionally, and that some of their testimony would be retraumatizing.”
Sterling says she looked forward to the 10 to 15 minutes each day before the trial resumed. She would meet with the families, offer hugs or words of encouragement and support. “One of the ways to get through that is to just enjoy some of the softer moments, too,” she says. “We had laughs together and then there was a lot of crying.”
But Sterling’s husband, Steven Mentz ’89, says he saw at home the emotional weight his wife has shouldered the past eight years, an amalgam of joy and vindication with the victories in court, but also wrenching sadness amid a grueling work schedule.
“Watching Alinor negotiate the incredible stress and intensity of these cases has been both amazing and difficult,” says Mentz, a St. John’s University English professor. “Given the suffering of the [Sandy Hook] families, it’s impossible not to want to give them everything they deserve. But I also have seen the toll on Alinor over the past almost-decade. It’s worth it, especially for the success against two industries [guns and conspiracy theorists] that had previously seemed invulnerable. But it’s been a lot of work and a lot of intensity.”
On Oct. 12, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $965 million in compensatory damages in the Lafferty case, and nearly a month later, on Nov. 10, Judge Bellis granted them $473 million in punitive damages, bringing the total judgment against Jones to more than $1.4 billion. In addition, earlier this year, nine Sandy Hook families reached a $73 million settlement with the Remington Arms Company in the Soto matter.
That Sterling arrived at this point is more unlikely given her path following Princeton. A public policy major, she moved to Moscow, later landed in New York City for a small business opportunity, and completed a federal clerkship in the early years of her professional career. The legal field was not immediately on her radar, even though her late father, William Wallace Sterling, was an attorney based in northern California.
“I had no idea that I’d be a lawyer. None,” says Sterling.
Fast forward to 2014, when Sterling and her colleagues were presented with a daunting, yet potentially historic opportunity: representing the Sandy Hook families. Sterling says several decisions — good and bad — were on her mind when weighing perhaps the biggest decision of her professional life.
“At key moments, I said ‘yes,’ even though I really didn’t know where saying yes would lead. Some things that I said ‘yes’ to, like the job in Russian business [in New York City], were real disasters,” Sterling said in an email. “But some let me align my work more and more with my own personal true north.”
The first challenge was taking on the powerful gun industry and, by extension, the insurance companies that represent it.
“The accepted view was that it was an absolute nonstarter,” says Sterling, who likened the circumstances to taking on the big tobacco companies. The overwhelming sentiment among legal pundits, Sterling adds, was that “this case is doomed.”
But the litany of tobacco lawsuits eventually resulted in a massive settlement agreement in 1998 and underscored that a behemoth industry could be brought to its knees.
“At the time we brought the case, there was an immunity for the gun industry. The industry felt it was a perfect protection for them,” says Sterling, referring to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), passed in 2005. The law prohibits individuals from filing suit against gun manufacturers, dealers, distributors, and firearms importers due to “misuse of their products by others.”
Sterling says the gun industry and the insurance companies asserted that PLCAA provided a shield against victims of mass shootings and their families.
“That was certainly a challenge, but it also felt like, ‘What an opportunity,’” says Sterling. “To be the lawsuit, like the first cigarette lawsuit, that actually succeeds in taking discovery from an industry that has shielded its secrets, my thinking was, ‘I want to do that.’”
One pivotal piece of the Soto case was how Sterling and her colleagues were able to demonstrate the ways Remington marketed the AR-15 in dangerous and reckless fashion by targeting young men. Remington’s aggressive tactics represented an unfair trade practice, the Koskoff legal team argued, and was in violation of Connecticut state law.
“I knew [the Sandy Hook case] was tremendously important,” she says. “But I truly didn’t know what the outcome would be. What gave me the insight to say ‘yes’ to that case, and what put me in a position to craft the unfair trade practices argument we made, was all the open-ended ‘yeses’ that had come before.”
The plaintiffs forced Remington to make public documents that were presented in discovery and depositions. Those documents peeled back the curtain on business practices that would have never been exposed otherwise.
“One of our goals and the families’ goals, always, was to be able to make the discovery that we took in the Soto case public,” says Sterling. “In the late phases of the case, Remington went into bankruptcy. We did a lot of work in the bankruptcy and immediately afterwards to undermine their ability to claim confidentiality in the documents they produced to us. After [Remington’s] second bankruptcy ended and we were back in court, we basically forced a concession from them, on the record, in front of the judge, that they couldn’t claim confidentiality.”
The legal gains were crucial during the settlement negotiations, Sterling says. Not only were the plaintiffs able to settle for “every single dollar of available insurance coverage,” but “we wanted insurers who were writing policies for gun companies to understand their exposure, and to preserve our clients’ rights and share these documents with the public.”
Sterling recalls she also imagined what it would be like to depose an executive, and to force individuals in those powerful positions “to sit down, look across the table at you, and answer these families’ questions.”
“To me it’s just so important,” she adds. “Maybe it changes the executive’s mind. Maybe sharing that deposition with the world changes onlookers’ minds. It’s an opportunity to change and change for the better.”
“[It] was certainly a challenge, but it also felt like, ‘What an opportunity.’ To be the lawsuit, like the first cigarette lawsuit, that actually succeeds in taking discovery from an industry that has shielded its secrets, my thinking was, ‘I want to do that.’” — Alinor Sterling ’89
Mentz says he first met Sterling over a hearts card game in a Dod Hall dorm room when they were juniors at Princeton. Classmate Robert “Robin” Traylor ’89 hosted.
“I didn’t know how to play at the time,” says Mentz. “That night was the only time in the past 30-plus years that I’ve ever beaten her at cards.”
Sterling and Mentz say they didn’t start dating until after graduation, when they were in New York City, and before Sterling attended law school at UCLA.
Sterling, who grew up in the Bay Area, says her undergraduate academic interests lay in “the intersection where life and literature and history meet.
“I learned Russian. I was the makings of a comp-lit major. I spoke French. I liked political science. I found out about the school of public policy,” says Sterling. “The only problem was, I was kind of a literature-and-languages person. I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll take me.’ And they did.”
Sterling wrote her senior thesis on Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov, and after graduation she lived in Russia for a year on a fellowship. It was 1990. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev embraced policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”
Sterling says she arrived in Moscow full of hope and optimism, but soon became dismayed with how the schools were entrenched in the past.
“There was this idea that there was an opening of literature, the great Russian literature, what they called dissident literature,” says Sterling. “I thought, ‘People are going to be reading this stuff. I can go over and see what it’s like to see it being taught in school.’
“I got over there, and they were using textbooks from 20 years before that had Stalin as the great father. I had this imagination about what was happening, and it wasn’t that at all.”
Still, she remained hopeful that her Russian literature interests and studies would be put to good use in New York City, where she moved after completing her fellowship. She worked for a small Russian-U.S. business development firm, but that was short-lived.
“It was an awful space to work in, and there was an unbelievable amount of ugly sexism,” she says. “It wasn’t right for me. That’s when I said, ‘I better go to law school. This isn’t working.’”
The next stop was in her native California, although a few hundred miles south of where she was raised.
“It was the best thing ever, to go to UCLA law school and pay in-state tuition. It meant I didn’t come out with a huge load of debt,” Sterling says. “What a great law school. It’s small, the faculty are amazing. You get to live in L.A. It was great.”
Sterling says constitutional law proved to be challenging, and she instead gravitated toward tort law, which she says made “intuitive sense to me.” Her law school mentors included the late professor Gary Schwartz, a tort scholar, and she admits she was not driven then by a mission or cause.
“I’m much more motivated by individual people and their stories,” says Sterling. “I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to do gun activism.’ I wasn’t called in that direction. The development in that direction happened as I began to represent people. When you’re an individual as opposed to a corporation in the legal system, it’s much harder. It is so important to the individual person who puts themselves into the legal system that those systems work. That’s one of my main motivators.”
While Sterling was in California, Mentz was in New Haven, pursuing his Ph.D. in English literature at Yale. The long-distance relationship was made easier when, Mentz says, he convinced Sterling to come back east after graduating. The couple married in Sausalito, California, in 1996 — Robin Traylor, who hosted that card game years ago and is now an attorney in San Diego, was in the wedding party — and settled in Connecticut, where they’ve resided ever since.
Sterling says after law school and a federal clerkship, “when my classmates were going to big, prestigious law firms in Los Angeles and New York,” she decided to work for a small New Haven firm.
“In my very first year of practice, I defended a wrongful adoption case (I lost), wrote my first appellate brief, and got a taste for the creativity I could bring to a plaintiff’s law practice,” Sterling says. “I was absolutely hooked.”
Sterling later started her own practice. The switch allowed her independence and more time with her two young children — son Ian is now a senior at George Washington University studying international development, while daughter Olivia is a sophomore at Haverford College studying pre-med and English. But the drive to become involved in more meaningful and important cases began to grow, and Sterling says that although she did not know exactly how to fulfill those goals, “I knew I needed to work on cases that mattered.”
During the Oct. 4 proceedings — which were interrupted by a fire alarm when Barden was on the stand — Sterling maintained an even keel while waiting outside the courthouse.
Jones held two press conferences and bellowed about the injustices he was facing. “This is a kangaroo court. This is a show trial. This is a travesty,” Jones said that morning. “The legal system is on trial. This is the weaponization of the judiciary. And the whole thing is a fraud from end to end.”
Inside the courthouse, there was the gut-wrenching testimony from Barden, his wife, Jackie, and Francine Wheeler, who lost her son, Ben, in the Sandy Hook shooting.
“It’s very hard to be under that much media scrutiny,” says Sterling. “The amount of pressure is extreme. The only thing that rivals that is the sense of internal pressure that we [the plaintiffs’ counsel] had to do absolutely everything we could for these families.”
Sterling adds that with little hope of meaningful gun legislation, the Sandy Hook outcomes and others that may follow are the best way to effect change.
“It’s incredibly frustrating from many perspectives,” says Sterling. “There’s a logjam in Congress. It doesn’t look like that’s going to get better. Ever. The legislative solution — we just don’t seem to be able to achieve it. I’m a huge believer that the change has to come from a different place.”
And Mentz says he doesn’t think it was by chance that Alinor’s law career led her to the Sandy Hook cases.
“From my point of view, there’s nothing arbitrary and random about it,” says Mentz. “Alinor is the exact person to be in this position and represent these families. We’re definitely at a political impasse with gun legislation and the issue of gun violence throughout the country, and particularly on various state levels. These cases open the discussion, and make people see the harm being done with the proliferation of weapons of war with our youth.”
And Josh Koskoff, Sandy Hook co-counsel, says that with all the intractability in Washington over the gun violence issue, he finds the work that he, Sterling, colleague Chris Mattei, and the other Koskoff legal team members are doing in the Sandy Hook cases “restorative.”
“Both are very timely cases, in terms of the issues that are confronted by all of us, almost every day,” says Koskoff. “The issue of gun violence, the effect of the gun industry in America, is profound, and so too is the effect of disinformation. It’s restorative, in the sense that there is still a mechanism in America to level the playing field between industries like the gun industry and the individuals they harm or destroy through bad business practices.”
Following the jury’s award of nearly $1 billion, Koskoff predicted Judge Bellis would hit Jones with “robust” punitive damages, “because the conduct engaged by Jones was substantially inhumane.
“It combines a three-horsemen of terrible conduct: purposeful, targeted against individuals doing them harm, and based on greed,” adds Koskoff. “In terms of collectability, I’m very confident that we’re going to collect every dollar from Jones that the families are entitled to. As I’ve said before, we’re going to chase Alex Jones to the ends of the earth if we have to.”
Although she didn’t immediately follow in her lawyer father’s footsteps after graduation from Princeton, Sterling says William Sterling followed her law career closely and was often a sage legal voice she would turn to for guidance. When Alinor Sterling was consumed with conflicting thoughts on whether to take on the Soto case early on, her father imparted some powerful advice to his daughter.
“He said to me, ‘If not you, then who?’ That has always stuck with me,” says Sterling.
With an opportunity to be of service to the Sandy Hook families, Sterling says the “right thing to do” was take the case and never look back.
“That’s what all my education and training experience is for,” says Sterling. “It’s meaningful personally. In my view, that’s what the Princeton education is for — when presented with that question, I say, ‘Yes,’ because I’ve been given this advantage, and I have to give back.”
Now, she adds, her work in the Sandy Hook cases has already made an impact for the better.
Change from a different place.
“For the [Soto] gun case settlement, it was a tremendous success for these families, a vindication of their courage in going up against the gun industry,” says Sterling. “The legal theory that we developed is being used all over the country in cases involving mass shootings. There’s a group of gun owners and people who use guns recreationally who completely agree with my clients that the responsible use of guns, the careful marketing of guns, and improvement of gun technology, is an appropriate path for America in the future.
“There are some real common values here that could be rediscovered. I believe that one of the things that the release of the discovery from the gun case is going to help people understand is where that common path may lead,” Sterling continues. “The tradition of much more safe, conservative marketing is also part of our history, and something that could be recovered. We could reach societal agreement around that.”
Christian Red is a freelance writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania.