Debra D. Hill, a Reston woman who set off a controversy last fall by complaining of eye damage from contaminated Visine A.C. eye drops, was found guilty yesterday of fabricating the incident by a Fairfax County judge who accused her of trying to gain "monetary profit" from the hoax.
General District Judge Stewart Pettet Davis, who conducted the trial without a jury, immediately sentenced Hill to a one-year jail term and $1,000 fine, the maximum penalty for the misdemeanor offense. She was accused of giving police a false and intentionally misleading report of a crime.
Hill, 30, who did not testify in her own defense, later repeated her previous assertions that she is innocent. "I'm not guilty," she told Davis after he announced his verdict.
"I think you are," the judge replied. "I wish I knew more about what your problem is and what needs to be done for it . . . . The evidence is very strong that it was also done for monetary profit."
William J. Schewe, one of Hill's lawyers, said she would appeal the case to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, where Hill has a right to a new trial with a jury. She was released on a personal recognizance bond, pending the appeal.
Hill's initial claims of damage to her left eye from a contaminated bottle of Visine A.C. medication purchased at a Drug Fair store in Herndon caused widespread concern last October, partly because they followed national investigations into incidents of drug tampering, including cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules that caused several deaths.
Relying largely on circumstantial evidence, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond L. Brownelle, a Fairfax prosecutor, sought to show yesterday that Hill had seen a Visine hoax as a possible way of collecting money, presumably through a later suit for damages or an insurance claim.
In essence, Brownelle argued that Hill carried out her scheme by buying an uncontaminated bottle of Visine A.C. drops. Then, he contended, she put some mild irritant in her eye in an attempt to simulate the effects that contaminated eye drops might have caused. Next, he argued, she visited an emergency room for treatment of a relatively mild injury.
The prosecutor cited a conversation between Hill and one of her acquaintances, Cynthia Harlow Johnson, as evidence of Hill's motive for engaging in a hoax. Johnson, a former grocery store cashier and NVCC student, testified that Hill told her in early October that "you could win a lot of money" by putting acid in Visine.
"I wouldn't risk my eye for something like that," Johnson testified she replied.
"You wouldn't have to if you did it right," Hill responded, according to Johnson's testimony.
After her arrest in November, Hill was also charged with several counts of credit card fraud and passing bad checks. Prosecution and defense lawyers said yesterday that these have apparently all been dropped, partly because of difficulties in locating witnesses to incidents dating back several years.