A Florida woman who, without wearing a mask, purposefully coughed on another customer in a Pier 1 store last year has been sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Debra Hunter, 53, will serve time in Duval County Jail, followed by six months of probation, an anger management course and a $500 fine for second-degree assault, a misdemeanor.
Judge James Ruth said in the Thursday sentencing that Hunter’s mid-coronavirus pandemic actions on June 25 could have had “deadly consequences” for the victim, Heather Sprague – who was undergoing treatment after the removal of a brain tumor – or her family.
The judge also said that although Hunter was extremely concerned about the well-being of her own family, who had been “permanently scarred” as a result of her actions, she showed little remorse for the trauma she inflicted on Sprague and her loved ones.
Hunter’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sprague declined to answer questions after the sentencing.
In video recorded by Sprague and shared widely on social media, Hunter is seen waiting at a Pier 1 checkout counter. Sprague was recording a heated argument Hunter was having with store employees.
In the video, Hunter turned her attention to Sprague for recording her behavior with her cellphone.
“Do you really need this? What do you want to do, post it for you?” Hunter said in a daring tone, then gestured at Sprague by holding up two middle fingers.
Then Hunter walked toward Sprague and told her what she was about to do – “I think I’ll get real close to you and cough on you. How about that?”
The video captures Hunter coughing on Sprague, calling her a derogatory name and then leaving the store with one of her children.
Sprague, who has 10 children and was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, told the court that some of her youngest children had weak immune systems after experiencing neglect and abuse before their adoptions. The judge said he was unaware about the health of Sprague’s children until Thursday.
Sprague said the cough, which sprayed spittle on her face, left her worried about her health and her family’s at a time when coronavirus tests were difficult to obtain.
During the sentencing hearing, Hunter read a letter to the judge detailing how much her husband and three children had suffered because of what she did. Through tears and sniffles, Hunter explained how her social circle had shrunk and how her children had been ostracized by their peers.
“He was shunned by his classmates, who would boldly ask him and purposefully in the midst of a small crowd, if his mother was that lady in the video,” she said of her oldest son. “It was like he was the son of the woman who wore the Scarlet Letter.”
Hunter told the judge her family is “permanently scarred” from the fallout of the widely shared video but that her children should not have to suffer further.
“I often wonder what it would be like if everyone of us, as the flawed human beings we are, had their worst moments reduced to a short video for all the world to see and judge,” she said. “The hardest part is that video shows me in the worst possible light on my worst possible day.”
In sentencing, Ruth focused on the potential impact Hunter’s saliva-spewing cough could have had on Sprague and the lack of remorse or empathy for the way the attack affected her victim.
“I didn’t hear much about your client’s concern for the actual victim in this case,” the judge said, addressing Hunter’s attorney. “I haven’t heard about the potential deadly impact this could have had on all of them [Sprague’s family], not only because of covid, but someone who has cancer and a compromised immune system.”
The judgenoted Hunter’s daring tone in the video and her obscene gesture and said it negated her claim that she’s been concerned about the social media consequences.
Hunter’s six months of probation come with the understanding that she will be required to undertake mental health evaluations and follow-up treatments if a counselor deems appropriate. The judge added anger management to Hunter’s sentence,based on concerns about her parenting.
“Your behavior in the presence of the children is reason for me to believe that was not the only episode the children had witnessed also or had been exposed,” he said.
Hunter will start serving her time on April 19 with credit for one day served.