10-year sentence for woman who set husband afire

Photo by Nita Johnson

Vera Wooten took the stand in her own defense during a trial in Laurel Circuit Court on Wednesday. A Laurel jury deliberated just over 20 minutes for a guilty verdict and just two minutes to recommend the minimal sentence of 10 years for first-degree assault.

A Laurel woman charged with setting her husband on fire during a domestic dispute was sentenced to a 10-year prison term during a one-day trial in Laurel Circuit Court on Wednesday.

It took a Laurel jury comprised of seven men and five women just over 20 minutes to reach a guilty verdict in the case of 42-year-old Vera Wooten and just two minutes to render a recommended sentence of 10 years for first-degree assault of her husband.

Under those conditions, Wooten will serve the minimum sentence for first-degree assault, which has a penalty range of 10 to 20 years. According to testimony from Department of Corrections officer Steven Hampton, Wooten will have to serve 85 percent - or 8 1/2 years - of that 10-year sentence before her first eligibility for parole. Hampton testified that parole and probation has three options - the first being to grant parole, the second to deny parole, and the third to revisit the potential at specific future points. From the jury's decision, however, Wooten will serve at the 8 1/2 years before becoming eligible to appear before the parole board.

Wooten was charged with first-degree assault against her husband in August 2017 after he was severely burned during a domestic argument.

She took him to Saint Joseph London for treatment following the incident, where he was then transported using a specially equipped helicopter from the Cincinnati burn center to transport him to their facility for treatment. The man remained in critical condition for some time following the incident and remains disabled from the incident.

The trial presented several witnesses, which included Wooten herself as well as her husband, who suffered severe burns to over 50 percent of his body from the incident.

A key point of the trial was determining whether Wooten lit her gas-doused husband with a Zippo lighter or whether he tried to light a cigarette after Wooten poured gasoline on him, as Wooten testified. A specialist with the Kentucky Forensic team said that Wooten's fingerprints were not on the Zippo lighter that was used to ignite the gasoline.

She also testified, however, that touching something does not always leave fingerprints, after Commonwealth Attorney Jackie Steele asked if touching the witness stand could show his own fingerprints if tested.

The defense also proposed that Wooten suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome and that the incident stemmed from past abuse dating back to Wooten's childhood, a prior marriage and the current marriage to the victim in this case.

Evidence indicates that Wooten came home from work early that August 7 evening in 2017 to find her husband sitting inside a vehicle with another woman. Wooten testified that she became irate and ordered the woman to leave the premises. Wooten testified that a physical dispute ensued, with her husband grabbing her around the neck.

"He tackled me like a football player and started choking me," she said. "I felt the life draining from my body and I was looking around to find something so he would let me go. I was using my fingernails to scratch him and was digging my fingernails into his eyes."

That's when Wooten spotted a bottle of gas, which she threw on her husband. Her testimony was that after the physical altercation ended, her husband lit a cigarette and caused himself to catch fire.

Wooten also told of a disgruntled relationship between she and her husband, citing several examples of him cheating on her. She also described childhood instances of sexual and physical abuse as well as a controlling atmosphere during her current marital situation. She also stated that her husband would take her paychecks and would not allow her to buy items she liked.

"(Victim) wouldn't let me have any money. I couldn't go to the store. I'm a vegetarian but I just had to get what he wanted to eat," she said. "I felt like I could only have stuff he approved of."

That relationship she described was a tumultuous one that involved several separations. Wooten said her husband's infidelity was common and that they had separated for as long as a year.

At the time that Wooten was charged with setting her husband on fire, she described how the couple was living in a camper near the lake in the Keavy community. Wooten said that camper was at one time shared between herself, her husband, his mentally challenged mother and four dogs. Although the camper had electricity, running water was not available and she had to go to the lake nearby to take baths. Although she described herself as disabled, Wooten said she was working at the time of the incident while her husband was unemployed. She said the day of the last altercation that water was finally available in the camper because her husband had tapped into a water line.

She also told jurors that she not only had Type 1 diabetes, she had had some surgery to correct some problems with her ovaries - but was still forced to engage in sexual activity with her husband.

"I had neuropathy surgery because my ovaries were twisted. Even knowing that sex could damage my ovaries, he made me have sex with him," Wooten said.

She also described how the couple's house burned in 2015 and she went to stay with her mother while her husband took refuge with a woman that Wooten said he had been seeing.

Wooten and her attorney, Jennifer Perkins, said Wooten suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome, although Commonwealth's Attorney Steele countered that during his presentation. The defense called a social worker to testify on Wooten's behalf, although Judge Greg Lay ruled that even with the domestic violence training required of social workers, the defense witness was not qualified to testify about the realms of spousal abuse.

Wooten described a long history of sexual and physical abuse, dating back to her early childhood and involving her alcoholic stepfather. That abuse, she said, continued until her stepfather's death but resurfaced again in her first marriage. She said the relationship with her current husband was initially good, but became increasingly more problematic as the years went by.

Steele pointed out several areas of Wooten's testimony that he said conflicted. First, the story of abuse from childhood had never been told prior to Wednesday's trial and had not been confirmed to conclude that Wooten suffered from Battered Spouse Syndrome as the defense attorney presented to jurors. He also reiterated the sequence of events leading to the setting fire incident, stating that Wooten testified that she was trying to get inside the camper that evening to retrieve a pistol. He also refuted Wooten's testimony that during the trip to the hospital for his medical treatment, her husband instructed her not to say anything to police and to ask for an attorney to avoid answering questions.

"You heard testimony that Vera Wooten's DNA was not on the Zippo lighter," he said. "You also heard the forensic expert testify that there was no guarantee that fingerprints would show," Steele said. "She is claiming that she was under extreme emotional disturbance and that she didn't light the Zippo. He had a Bic lighter in his pocket. She'd just poured gasoline on him. He worked in the coal mines and knew about combustible materials. He knew after being doused in gasoline not to light a cigarette."

During the presentation after the guilty verdict was determined, Perkins outlined some of the ordeals that Wooten had faced in her lifetime and asked the jury for mercy.

"I think it's important to know how someone gets to where they are," she said. "That is not presented as an excuse but you heard Vera tell how her upbringing was pretty hard. She's 42 years old now. With a 10-year sentence, she will be 50 years old. If you give her 10 years, she will serve 8 1/2 - she will be 50 years old and I'm asking you to give her some form of life to become a better person. If you give her the maximum sentence, she could serve almost 20 years in jail. I don't discount the suffering of the victim, but I ask that you consider the way Vera was raised, how she was treated in her life."

Steele countered those statements during his time to emphasize the penalty phase to jurors.

"You heard her tell that she was trying to get into the camper to get a gun to kill him, that she was trying to claw his eyeballs out," Steele continued. "She said first she didn't do it. This is the first time she has told these stories of abuse. Her early childhood experiences are not a reason for (victim) to suffer the rest of his life. I ask you to remember (victim). He was in the hospital for two months. He has permanent scars and disfigurement from this," he said. "The reason we have a penalty range is because sometimes the actions weren't as bad for some offenses as others. Soaking someone in gasoline and setting them on fire deserves no mercy, only justice."

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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