JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The woman who, in a viral video, gave the finger to another customer and then coughed in her face at a Jacksonville mall, has been sentenced to 29 days in prison for assault.
The decision put an end to several hours of testimony and questions on Thursday at the sentencing hearing of Debra Jo Michele Hunter, the woman from Fernandina Beach, outside Jacksonville. It came despite an August plea deal that consisted only of probation with conditions.
Judge James Ruth of the Duval District Court first heard testimony from Hunter’s husband, friends and family who said she had a “really huge heart” and is “broken at heart” about how she coughed on cancer patient Heather Sprague. But after speaking on Hunter’s behalf, Sprague told the judge about the confrontation that took place just months after she underwent brain tumor surgery.
Sprague said she watched Hunter, 53, give at least 15 minutes of what she called “ escalating bullying, ” curses and threats to Pier 1 staff over a broken object with Sprague’s kids nearby. It wasn’t until Sprague said she started making video in the last minute of the rant that she was yelled at and then she continued to cough.
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Debra Jo Hunter got emotional when she spoke at her hearing on Zoom sentencing on Thursday.
After hearing the defendant’s four-page statement, Sprague said it was more about the impact the viral video’s fame has had on Hunter and her family, who were very “self-centered,” without much apology to her.
“She gave herself permission to act this way and then chose to walk up to me,” Sprague said. That was not the response of an overprotective Mama Bear. It was an episode rooted in privileges and rights, designed to exploit and attack vulnerability in the belief that she was immune from the consequences. ‘
Ruth then watched Sprague’s 40 second video clip, the first comment being a surprised “Oh my” when he saw the rude gesture and coughing, after which adding this “rant” took longer than he thought. Before deciding to add jail time to the plea deal, he criticized Hunter’s testimony and letter to him, saying they mainly focused on the impact of the public response to the video on her family.
“Her kids didn’t cause this problem and her husband didn’t, and she talked about how it changed her world and she got mean grams on Facebook and stuff and they can’t go to their country club or anywhere,” said Ruth. But I have yet to see one more expression, or an important one about her regret for the impact it had on the victim in this case! ”
Sprague was at the Pier 1 store when she saw Hunter getting angry, according to the warrant. The victim recorded Hunter’s rant on her cellphone. Then Hunter made a rude gesture at her, before asking if Sprague would like her to post it on social media. Then Hunter walked up to you and said she will ‘get very close to you and cough on you’ and she did it in her face before leaving with a small child.
Sprague is a brain tumor patient with a compromised immune system, she posted on Facebook with her video immediately after the incident. She was wearing a mask and called the police four days later to say she was unwell since the incident. She said she didn’t speak, respond, or speak to Hunter at all.
Sprague told the judge, the defendant and her attorney, as well as the prosecution, saying she lived in fear after being coughed up and feeling spit out in an act that she said was “ calculated to attack me at my weakest point, physically and psychologically. ”She said she had spent days looking for a place to get a COVID-19 test in fear of herself and 10 children, and she turned out negative.
“The purpose of the defendant’s actions could only have been to transmit disease or to make me fear that I was infected,” said Sprague. “I was concerned for the health and safety of my family and wondered how on earth I could isolate in a house of 12 people to protect them if I had been deliberately infected.”
Cancer patient Heather Sprague spoke at the hearing about the conviction of the woman who coughed on her.
During the first part of the March 24 sentencing hearing, one of Hunter’s neighbors spoke in defense. Tarry Rogers said through Zoom that Hunter was “very remorseful” about what happened and is still facing “collateral damage” from the event because she just wants to move on from what she called “terrible moments.”
Six others spoke out in defense of Hunter at Thursday’s ongoing Zoom hearing, including retired Jacksonville Police Department Lt. Allen Eason. The family friend said he was surprised at what he saw in Sprague’s viral video, knowing Hunter “wasn’t doing that well,” but that’s not the woman he knows.
Crying and sniffing while wearing a mask, Hunter said the social media madness that followed had threatened many people as friends shunned her and her three children. She said her son was banned at school as “the son of the woman who wore the Scarlet Letter,” adding that her shame and regret will follow her for the rest of her life.
“As a family, we collectively avoid everyone we recognize for fear they might know,” she said. ‘The reality is that my family has been permanently scarred. My kids wouldn’t have to pay the price for my mistake. I can overcome the exclusion. I deserve it. My children don’t. ‘
The prosecution’s plea deal still includes an abstention from trial and a six-month probationary period with conditions, requesting Hunter to follow an anger management program. She must write a letter of apology to Sprague, which she said months ago, and reimburse the victim for the $ 150 COVID-19 test she took after the cough.
This article originally appeared in Florida Times-Union: Florida Woman Gets Jailed After Coughing On Shopper In Pier 1 Store