Woman who coughed on Pier 1 shopper’s face is sentenced to 30 days

  • >> Michael Levenson, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-04-10 21:13:54 BdST

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Debra Hunter, 53, was charged with misdemeanour assault in June after she walked up and coughed on the shopper, Heather Sprague, who had been recording video of Hunter’s dispute with employees at the store in Jacksonville, Florida. Screngrab from video via The New York Times

A Florida woman who was seen in a widely watched video intentionally coughing on a shopper at a Pier 1 home goods store last summer, as fears about the pandemic raged, was sentenced on Thursday to 30 days in jail, court records show.

The woman, Debra Hunter, 53, was charged with misdemeanour assault in June after she walked up and coughed on the shopper, Heather Sprague, who had been recording video of Hunter’s dispute with employees at the store in Jacksonville, Florida.

Sprague said in court that she had started recording Hunter after watching her berate store employees for 15 minutes in an argument over an item that Hunter wanted to return.

Sprague said she had had surgery to remove a brain tumour 10 months earlier and was still undergoing treatment when Hunter saw that she was recording and made an obscene gesture.

“I think I’ll get real close to you and cough on you, then, how’s that?” Hunter says in the video as she approaches the mobile phone and then coughs. Sprague, who said she was wearing a mask at the time, testified that Hunter had left spittle on her face.

“The defendant’s act of coughing in my face at the height of a pandemic was an act that was calculated to attack me at my weakest point, physically and psychologically,” Sprague told Judge James A. Ruth of Duval County Court, according to a recording of an online sentencing hearing that was posted by First Coast News. “I was stunned in the moment and increasingly fearful in the aftermath.”

After the encounter, Sprague said, she struggled to find a COVID test, as diagnostic tests were not widely available at the time. She ultimately tested negative.

The episode came during a period in the pandemic when authorities were responding to heated confrontations across the country over masks and other precautions, with some of those disputes leading to criminal charges for people who spat or coughed on ride-share drivers, store employees and police officers. Retail workers also reported being subjected to verbal abuse — and even threats involving guns — for enforcing mask rules.

Hunter said she felt remorse and guilt from “one very poor decision” that had cost her three children nearly all of their friends and had made her feel like a pariah in her community. She said her children had been greatly affected by the hundreds of text messages, emails, phone calls, social media threats and even hand-delivered letters she had received after the video of her coughing on Sprague gained widespread attention.

 

“The reality is that my family has been permanently scarred,” Hunter told the judge. “And although that scar might fade over time, it will never completely disappear. My kids should not have to pay the price for my mistake.”

“I can overcome the ostracization,” Hunter added, according to First Coast News. “I deserve it. My children do not.”

Hunter told the judge that the video showed her in the “worst possible light on my worst possible day” and said she had felt at the time like a balloon that was going to pop. Her husband, Doug Hunter, told the court that a fire had forced the family from their house, among other hardships they had endured.

“Everything kept piling on and piling on and piling on, and I just kept trying to push it down,” Debra Hunter said. “That day, the pin just stuck in the balloon, and unfortunately for Ms. Sprague, you know, she was the recipient of that, and for that I apologize.”

Ruth took issue with Hunter’s testimony, saying she had expressed more concern for her family than for Sprague.

“She talked about how it changed her world and, you know, she’s getting the nastygrams on Facebook and things of that nature, and they can’t go to the country club or wherever, and can’t play soccer,” he said. “I get that. But I’ve yet to see any expression — or a significant expression — on her regret about the impact it had on the victim in this case.”

In addition to 30 days in jail, Hunter was sentenced to six months of probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Ruth also ordered her to take an anger management class and to undergo a mental health evaluation and participate in follow-up treatment, if appropriate.

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