Malinowski's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Michael Slager, pleaded guilty on July 5 in her murder and was sentenced to life in prison

By Adam Carlson
July 16, 2018 10:28 AM

In January 2017, still bearing the wounds from the arson attack that would eventually kill her, Judy Malinowski spoke out about the day her boyfriend covered her in gasoline and set her aflame.

It was, she recalled, like “a thousand hot needles” stabbing into her body.

“The look on his face was pure evil,” she said from her hospital bed, of the moment Michael Slager approached her with a lighter outside a gas station while the two were arguing on Aug. 2, 2015. “There are no other words to describe it.”

Though she was burned on about 90 percent of her body and believed likely to die within days — if not hours — Malinowski, a cancer survivor and mother to two daughters, lived for nearly two years following her assault and underwent dozens of surgeries.

Five months before she succumbed to her injuries, and in light of her uncertain health, prosecutors successfully sought to depose Malinowski in the case in order to preserve her account of what happened.

She weaned herself off of key medication, enduring increased pain, in order to be of sound mind to testify last year.

Judy Malinowski
Bonnie Bowes/Facebook

Via video-conferencing, Malinowski answered questions from prosecutors and was subject to cross-examination by Slager’s attorney, all of whom had gathered in a courtroom for the deposition.

Though she could not recall some details of that August day in 2015, she spoke clearly and forcefully about the timeline of the attack itself, which occurred after an argument when Malinowski left a drug rehabilitation facility and Slager, who had driven her there, followed her to the nearby gas station, in Gahanna, Ohio.

She disputed Slager’s contention that the arson was an accident and that he was trying to light a cigarette. (After she caught fire, Slager put her out with a fire extinguisher, according to his attorney.)

Malinowski said he doused her with gas, starting at her head and working his way down, as she was on the ground. She remembered the sting of gas in her throat, her cries for help — and the moment the gas on her skin met the flame of Slager’s lighter.

“I thought for sure I was dying,” she said. “I just prayed to Jesus to please forgive me for my sins and to take care of my children.”

In all, Malinowski spoke for more than an hour, describing not just the arson and her volatile relationship with Slager but her own history with drugs — how she became hooked on heroin after being prescribed pain medication while being treated for ovarian cancer.

At times her voice grew choked with emotion and she sometimes seemed to struggle for breath.

Judy Malinowski’s deposition from January 2017, which includes graphic content, is below.

“I don’t think words can describe what it feels like to have your whole body set on fire,” she said. “I can remember trying to get the fire out of my face and my eyes. I can remember screaming for help. I can remember looking over and seeing him standing there and staring at me.”

“Waking up is a horrible thing because you wake up feeling the same way every day,” she said. “They say it gets a little better as time goes by, but if one thing heals, another thing hurts. So I have to push myself to make it through every day and I have to really tell myself why I’m doing this.”

After Malinowski passed away in June 2017, at 33, the charges against Slager were upgraded to aggravated murder and he was scheduled to go on trial this month. (He previously pleaded no contest to aggravated arson, possession of criminal tools and assault.)

The details of the case grew more exceptional in April, when the judge presiding over the case ruled that Malinowski’s video deposition last year could be admitted as evidence at trial, allowing a murder victim to testify against her killer.

Legal experts tell PEOPLE the development is a first for Ohio, if not the nation, but that it highlights the extraordinary circumstances of Malinowski’s particular case, not any strange application of the law.

“The [judge’s] decision was unusual (if not unique) because you had a witness whom everyone knew there was a good chance might not survive until trial, and so the prosecutor set up an entire formal deposition for her,” explains Ric Simmons, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“It is rare that a prosecutor will know that far in advance that his/her witness will not be around for trial,” Simmons continues. “In most cases involving hearsay” — that is, testimony made out of court — “in hospitals, the witness is imminently dying and so the prosecutor needs to get a record of the testimony quickly — there is no time to set up a deposition and schedule the defense attorney to come in and cross-examine.”

Malinowski’s testimony against her killer was made public earlier this month when it was played for the court as Slager pleaded guilty to her murder.

He had faced a possible death sentence if convicted by a jury but instead received a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It was, all sides say, the outcome Malinowski herself preferred, as long as Slager agreed to confess to his crime and accept a life of imprisonment.

Michael Slager
Franklin County Common Court

“Judy wanted Michael to not face the death penalty and her hope was that he would find God somewhere between now and when he meets her again,” her mother, Bonnie Bowes, said at the hearing, held July 5 in Franklin County. “And that was her hope, and that’s pretty generous of her.”

Joining Bowes in court was Malinowski’s older daughter, 14, and other relatives, as well as Slager’s family and others.

Attorneys in the case tell PEOPLE the plea deal came together two days before the hearing, which was held just one day before jury selection was set to begin in Slager’s murder prosecution.

“It was important to us and the victim’s family that he admit and accept responsibility,” says Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien.

While Slager has long maintained the fire was an accident — and wanted to appeal the judge’s ruling allowing Malinowski’s taped deposition at his trial — his defense believed he risked a “significant chance” of being executed unless he pleaded, largely owing to Malinowski’s own words.

The video is “that disturbing and that powerful,” says his attorney Mark Collins.

According to Collins, Slager is bipolar and has intermittent explosive disorder, which means he can have inappropriately outsized responses in altercations. Collins argues this is what happened in 2015: Slager grew angry when Malinowski threw soda on him as they fought after she left the rehab center, and in return threw gasoline on her.

But, in Slager’s mind, he did not mean to cause her harm, Collins says.

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Still, he says, Slager “acknowledges” that his actions that day led to Malinowski’s death. At his plea hearing, Slager apologized both to his family and to Malinowski’s for what he had put them through.

“He felt by pleading guilty he could allow each family to start the healing process,” Collins says.

Bowes said she hoped Slager’s apology “was genuine,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“Judy was so kindhearted,” Bowes said. “She would have said, ‘Mom, that’s acceptable. It’s what I wanted.’ ”

Malinowski’s mother previously told PEOPLE her daughter felt it was “important” to testify about what happened — to “stand up to [Slager] in whatever way she could.” After her death, “Judy’s Law” was passed in Ohio, stiffening the sentence for assailants who disfigure their victims.

“She showed unbelievable strength over the last two years,” Bowes said last year. “I really don’t know how she did it.”