Yesterday, I read the trending story about Debra Hunter, the mom in Jacksonville, Florida who was caught on video last summer, berating a clerk at a Pier 1 home goods store. Heather Sprague, the woman who decided to video Hunter, claims she had listened to her verbally abusing the clerk about an item she had wanted to return, but apparently hadn’t brought with her.
When Hunter noticed Sprague filming, she gave her a “double bird”– that is, both middle fingers in their locked and upright positions. Then, obviously very angry, Hunter said, “I think I’ll get real close to you and cough on you, then, how’s that?” Sprague was one of the few people wearing a face mask in public at the time, since this incident occurred in June 2020, before face masks were required. She says she felt spittle on her face as Hunter then stormed out of the store.
Sprague is a mother of ten and has been treated for a brain tumor at the Mayo Clinic. Because of her delicate health condition, and that of her children, some of whom have special healthcare needs, Sprague claims she had to search frantically for a COVID-19 test. They were not widely available at the time, so she spent some time feeling very anxious. It cost her $150 to be tested. The results were, fortunately, negative.
Ms. Hunter has had her day in court, and Judge James A. Ruth sentenced her to 30 days in jail. Hunter also got six months probation, a $500 fine, must have a mental health evaluation and attend anger management counseling, and she must repay Sprague for the COVID-19 test.
After reading the many outraged comments people had about this case, I decided to watch the entire proceedings on YouTube. It was about a three hour video. One of the reasons it took so long is because there were technical difficulties, as the proceedings went on via Zoom.
Once again, I find myself disagreeing with the masses about this case. I read gleeful comment after delighted comment that Debra Hunter is going to go to jail for a month. I read many people condemning her character, based on headlines. I read that Debra Hunter and her family had received many death threats related to this incident, and her children were forbidden from playing with their now former friends. Ms. Hunter and her family are now pariahs, and now she will be going to jail for up to 30 days.
I know a lot of people think this sentence is entirely appropriate, and Debra Hunter and her family deserve being thrown to the Internet lions. It’s become very trendy for people to take it upon themselves to film total strangers and upload the videos to social media. Oftentimes, the videos– just a minute or two of someone’s entire life– lead to fifteen minutes of fame for the uploader and years of public ridicule and condemnation for the person being filmed AND their families. Debra Hunter has children too, and they are suffering because Heather Sprague decided to insert herself in a situation that, frankly, was not her affair.
I watched the incident from the video that Heather Sprague uploaded. While I don’t condone Debra Hunter’s actions at all, and I do think most of the punishment she received is appropriate, I don’t think she should be going to jail. It was a very short interaction she had with Sprague and, honestly, one that really didn’t need to happen. Heather Sprague, who claims to be medically fragile and has many children who are also medically fragile, CHOSE to meddle in a perfect stranger’s personal business. It seems to me that if Ms. Hunter was really that out of control, the store manager or perhaps even law enforcement should have been called– especially if Ms. Sprague is a cancer patient with small children at home. I mean, seriously… it’s Florida. She’s lucky no one pulled out a gun!
Many people were saying that Ms. Hunter’s decision to cough on Ms. Sprague was especially heartless, since Ms. Sprague has had cancer. But– if these two women didn’t even know each other, how could Ms. Hunter possibly know anything about Ms. Sprague’s medical history or condition? Yes, it was absolutely wrong for Hunter to lose her temper and cough on another person, particularly during a pandemic. But in June of last year, COVID-19 hadn’t yet wreaked the havoc that it since has worldwide. It was still very much a “novel” virus, and people in the United States were blissfully unaware of what was about to come. At that point, Ms. Hunter probably didn’t realize how dangerous coughing on someone is. The vast majority of us alive today have never before lived through a pandemic the likes of COVID-19. It was new territory in June 2020, and even as angry as Hunter was on that June day last year, I doubt she would have taken that action months later, when it became clearer how dangerous COVID-19 is.
As it turned out, Hunter didn’t have COVID-19 anyway, so while coughing on Sprague was rude, disgusting, and potentially dangerous, it wasn’t a murderous action. But people are still calling what she did “attempted murder” or “attempted manslaughter”. To that, I say “bullshit”. Yes, it was absolutely wrong for her to cough on Ms. Sprague, but I feel quite certain that Ms. Hunter’s intention was not to kill anyone. She was just really angry and having a very bad day, as we all do from time to time. And if Sprague hadn’t been filming her with the apparent intention of shaming, ridiculing, and destroying her life on social media, she probably would not have been on the receiving end of Ms. Hunter’s cough.
I don’t think Debra Hunter’s actions in June 2020 were appropriate. She was extremely angry that day, and according to Ms. Sprague, Hunter had been going off in the store for about fifteen minutes. Friends and colleagues who testified on her behalf in the above video claim that this behavior was out of character for Debra Hunter. Her husband testified that the two of them had been trying to build a house and had run into significant problems with the contractors who were building it. Then, their rental house caught on fire and they lost a lot of their personal possessions. If what Ms. Hunter’s husband says is true, I can understand why Ms. Hunter was upset. No, she certainly shouldn’t have been taking out her stress on the Pier 1 clerk, nor should she have lost her temper with Heather Sprague’s busybody proclivities— but I can see that she was under a lot of stress. And, not knowing the story behind why she was trying to return the item to Pier 1, I don’t have a clear idea of why she was projecting her rage on the sales associate, attracting Ms. Sprague’s attention.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I really don’t like this trend of people videoing strangers and making them go viral. I think such an action, while probably very satisfying for the person filming/judging/meddling, as well as the people who watch the videos, can have serious second and third order negative effects that don’t fit the “crime”. Everybody has bad days, and not a single one of us can be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever said or done. Is it really appropriate to destroy someone’s reputation and livelihood, as well as that of her family’s (particularly the children’s) just so someone can get fifteen minutes of fame?
I would have been much more impressed with Heather Sprague if she’d intervened by being kind. Perhaps if she had interjected by asking Debra Hunter if she was okay… or tried to help her calm down a bit. She mentioned Hunter’s child being there, doing the “potty dance”. Maybe Sprague could have redirected Hunter’s attention to the child, rather than whipping out her cellphone. If she really felt the need to intervene in this situation, she could have done so with a spirit of wanting to be helpful, rather than being judgmental. Now, thanks to Heather Sprague’s brand of “help”, Hunter’s children are being ostracized and may suffer psychological effects from this incident. Hunter will be going to jail, where she might be exposed to COVID-19 and, frankly, it’s doubtful that punishment in jail will rehabilitate her in any way.
I know a lot of people, particularly in the United States, think jail is the end all, be all of punishments. For some reason, a lot of us LOVE to see people rot behind bars, for the most trivial of infractions. Many Americans seem to enjoy it when someone gets the book thrown at them, and a lot of us are slow to forgive, unless the situation involves a pretty celebrity of some sort. But, I wonder how many rank and file Americans would like it if some stranger videoed them in the act of having a bad day, and took it upon themselves to put that moment or two on social media?
Would they say to themselves, “I deserve the death threats and the nasty phone calls, letters, and text messages from thousands of people around the world.”? Would they say, “I was a jackass, and my kids totally deserve to be ostracized and harassed by their peers because of what I did.”? Would they be completely fine with losing their job, as well as their spouses losing their job, based on something that occurred outside of work hours? My guess is that the vast majority of people would not. And I haven’t even mentioned the hate mail and vitriol people who have the misfortune of sharing the name “Hunter” have gotten in the wake of this fiasco. Several innocent people have had to make statements that they weren’t involved in this incident.
I will agree that Ms. Hunter didn’t seem overly concerned about Heather Sprague’s welfare. But, I would submit that Heather Sprague wasn’t too concerned about Debra Hunter’s welfare, either, when she took it upon herself to make her Internet infamous. I’m truly sorry that Heather Sprague was so terrified that she might get COVID-19 from being coughed on… but this was a situation that she could have avoided by simply minding her own business or, barring that, asking someone in authority to get involved. And if I were someone who suffered from a brain tumor and had medically fragile children to care for, that is what I think I would have done. Or, I would have alerted someone who could have intervened without as much personal risk. I’ve heard many people say that anyone who is medically fragile in the age of COVID-19 ought to “stay home” and avoid the risk of catching the virus. Seems like that advice could apply to Heather Sprague, too.
Perhaps it’s my time in Germany that has made me find this practice of making people Internet infamous so distasteful. Here, people have the right to be forgotten. Even people who are accused and convicted of crimes have the right to anonymity. Media outlets don’t always print people’s full names, nor do they show their faces, if they have been accused or convicted of a crime. Now, I don’t mean to imply that this is necessarily how it should be everywhere, but I do think there is something to be said for letting people live down their past misdeeds and get on with their lives. I don’t think the trend of making people go viral is fair, nor is it practical. Because, eventually, people who screw up, need to be able to go on with life. They need to be able to find employment so they can support themselves. They should be able to redeem themselves, so the rest of their lives aren’t completely fucked up forever.
Uninvolved people who take it upon themselves to film strangers behaving badly are basically acting as judge, jury, and executioner when they upload that stuff to social media. I think, if a person films something that is criminal, it’s more appropriate to give that footage to authorities, rather than taking it upon themselves to put the footage on YouTube or Facebook. Frankly, I won’t be surprised if people start suing these meddlesome folks… or much worse, someone gets shot for pulling out a cellphone.
One more point I would like to add. Judge Ruth reasoned that he sentenced Debra Hunter to jail because he hadn’t heard her express remorse to Heather Sprague. He seemed to imply that she wasn’t sorry for what happened. Personally, I disagree with his assessment. I listened to Debra Hunter’s testimony. At about the 1:30:00 mark in the video, Hunter’s lawyer invites his client to speak on her own behalf. She tells the judge that she’s already written a letter and won’t put him through listening to her points again. The judge interjects and tells her it’s “her day” in court. She speaks about how her three children have suffered because of what “she did”. She sounded genuinely sorry to me, and even said she could empathize with the parents who stopped letting their kids play with Hunter’s children. The judge even told Ms. Hunter to slow down and relax, because she was clearly very upset. At 1:40:00, she legitimately starts to sob. And yet, so many people, reacting to headlines, are calling her a narcissistic monster who should lose her kids and rot in prison. WTF?
I have had lots of dealings with real narcissists… and they don’t behave like Debra Hunter did in her hearing. I would encourage those who think she’s a monster to actually listen to her testimony. At 1:48:00, Debra Hunter actually says she deserves what she’s getting… in contrast to what the judge said, I did hear her mention Ms. Sprague and how this affected her, again at about 1:48:00. She mentions that there has been a “lot of fallout” for Ms. Sprague and her family. At 1:50:00, she apologizes to Sprague and mentions the letter of apology that she sent to her soon after the incident.
The judge says that due to the length of Ms. Hunter’s tirade and the fact that there was saliva that came from the cough, she deserves jail. Well, as we’ve learned since last year, saliva and spittle is a thing when we talk, breathe, sneeze, and cough. Even if Ms. Hunter hadn’t coughed, there would have been saliva droplets. That is the nature of things pertaining to the oral cavity, and why we’ve all been forced to wear masks for the past year. I’m not saying the cough was appropriate. It wasn’t. I’m saying that there would have been saliva regardless, and this occurred at a time when we didn’t know as many of the facts about COVID-19. Again– if this incident had occurred this year, I doubt Ms. Hunter would have done what she did, and she might have been wearing a face mask, anyway.
I know my opinion is unpopular. I expect some people will feel the need to correct my opinion in the form of strongly worded comments. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably already know how I feel about people who feel the need to directly “correct” people’s opinions. I just don’t think, in this case, the punishment is appropriate. Yes, Ms. Hunter should have been in much better control of her emotions. I do think she needs some help from a mental health professional. I do think it’s right that she pay a fine and reimburse Heather Sprague for what she spent on the COVID-19 test. I think community service and probation would also be appropriate. But we have so many people in jail, and the fact that the Hunter family has endured almost a year of “venom” (at 2:50:00) from the court of public opinion is already a heavy punishment.
And that venom hasn’t just affected Debra Hunter. It’s affected her business, her family, her children, and friends, as well as perfect strangers with the last name Hunter who have gotten hate mail and death threats, or had their businesses negatively affected by Sprague’s decision to film. That’s a whole lot of punishment delivered to uninvolved people for something that, prior to Facebook, would never have been international news, and probably would not have affected so many people besides those directly involved in the incident.
My guess is that most of the people– completely uninvolved strangers— who are calling for Hunter’s head on a platter would NOT like it if they got the same treatment for similar behavior. Anyone who thinks this can’t happen to them is fooling themselves. I’m sitting here reading this and listening to the actual court case in GERMANY, for Christ’s sakes. Think about that.
I wish Debra Hunter well and hope she and her family can move past this incident without too much trouble.