JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The woman seen in a viral video giving the finger to another shopper then coughing in her face at a Jacksonville mall has been sentenced to 29 days in jail for assault.
The decision ended several hours of testimony and questions Thursday in the sentencing hearing of Debra Jo Michele Hunter, the woman from Fernandina Beach, outside of Jacksonville. It came despite an August plea agreement that had consisted of only probation with conditions.
Duval County Court Judge James Ruth first heard testimony from Hunter's husband, friends and family who said she has a "really huge heart" and is "broken-hearted" over how she coughed on cancer patient Heather Sprague. But after they spoke on behalf of Hunter, Sprague told the judge about the confrontation that happened only months after she underwent brain tumor surgery.
Sprague said she watched Hunter, 53, give at least 15 minutes of what she called "escalating bullying," swearing and threats to Pier 1 staff about a broken item with Sprague's children nearby. It was only when Sprague said she started shooting video in the final minute of the tirade that she was yelled at, then coughed on.
After Sprague heard the defendant's four-page statement, she said it was more about the impact the notoriety of the viral video has had on Hunter and her family, very "self-absorbed" without much apology to her.
"She gave herself permission to behave in this manner as she then chose to walk up to me," Sprague said. "That was not the kneejerk reaction of an overprotective Mama Bear. It was an episode that was rooted in privilege and entitlement, and it was targeted to exploit and attack vulnerability with an assumption of immunity to consequences."
Ruth then watched Sprague's 40-second video clip, with an initial comment a surprised "Oh my" as he saw the rude gesture and coughing, then adding this "tirade" took longer than he thought. Before he made his decision to add jail time to the plea agreement, he criticized Hunter's testimony and letter to him, saying they mostly focused on the impact of the public reaction to the video to her family.
"Her children didn't create this problem and her husband didn't, and she talked about how it changed her world and she was getting nastygrams on Facebook and things of that nature and they can't go to their country club or wherever," Ruth said. "But I have yet to see any expression, or a significant expression on her regret about the impact it had on the victim in this case!"
Sprague was at the Pier 1 store when she saw Hunter get angry, according to the arrest warrant. The victim recorded Hunter's tirade on her cellphone. Then Hunter made a rude gesture at her, before asking whether Sprague would like her to post it on social media. Then Hunter walked up, saying she'll "get real close to you and cough on you," then doing so in her face before leaving with a small child.
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Sprague is a brain tumor patient with a compromised immune system, she posted in Facebook right after the incident with her video. She was wearing a mask and called police four days later saying she had not been feeling well since the incident. She said she did not speak, react or talk to Hunter at all.
Speaking to the judge, suspect and her attorney as well as the prosecutor, Sprague said she lived in fear after she was coughed on, feeling spit on her face in an act she said was "calculated to attack me at my weakest point, physically and psychologically." She said she spent days searching for a place to get a coronavirus test in fear for herself and 10 children, turning up negative.
"The intent of the defendant's actions could only have been to transmit sickness or leave me fearful that I had been infected," Sprague said. "I worried for the health and safety of my family and wondered how in the world I could possibly isolate to protect them in a house of 12 if I had intentionally been infected."
During the first part of the sentencing hearing on March 24, one of Hunter's neighbors spoke in her defense. Speaking via Zoom, Tarry Rogers said Hunter was "deeply remorseful" for what happened and still faces "collateral damage" from the event as she just wants to move forward from what she called "dreadful moments."
Six others spoke out in Hunter's defense during Thursday's continued Zoom hearing, including retired Jacksonville police Lt. Allen Eason. The family friend said he was surprised at what he saw in Sprague's viral video, knowing Hunter "didn't act the best," but that isn't the woman he knows.
Crying and sniffing as she wore a mask, Hunter said the social media frenzy that followed had many people threatening her as friends shunned her and her three children. She said her son was ostracized 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 anyone we recognize for fear that they might know," she said. "The reality is my family has been permanently scarred. My kids should not have to pay the price for my mistake. I can overcome the ostracizing. I deserve it. My children do not."
The State Attorney's Office's plea agreement still includes a withholding of adjudication and six months' probation with conditions, requesting Hunter take an anger-management program. She must write an apology letter to Sprague, which she said she did months ago, and reimburse the victim for the $150 coronavirus test she took after the cough.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Florida Woman gets jail after coughing on shopper at Pier 1 store