Ex-bishop who fatally struck Baltimore bicyclist could be out of prison next month if sentencing change OK'd

A former Episcopal bishop serving a prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist with her car while drunk could be released as early as next month if a Baltimore judge approves her request to modify how she is serving her sentence.

Heather Cook has asked Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory to change two of her four sentences from consecutive to concurrent status. That could cut two years off the seven-year sentence Doory imposed for the crash in 2014that killed Tom Palermo.

If Doory agrees to Cook’s full request, state prison officials said credits Cook has accrued, in accordance with state law, through participation in prison programs would be applied against her revised five-year sentence. That would make her eligible for release on Nov. 5 — the date the judge has set for a hearing on the motion.

If Doory denies the request, Cook is set to be released on Aug. 6.

Alisa Rock, a sister of Palermo’s wife, Rachel, said in an email to The Baltimore Sun that she “vehemently” opposes Cook’s application, much as members of the extended Palermo family did when Cook applied for parole in May and for home detention in July.

“Each of Cook’s attempts to reduce her sentence traumatizes my sister and her family anew,” she said. “It’s maddening ... This trauma will affect them all for the rest of their lives, and it’s only appropriate that Heather Cook serve out her original sentence, not only for killing Tom, but for leaving him there, for abdicating responsibility for what she did.”

Cook was the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland when she struck Palermo, who was 41 and the father of two young children, in December 2014.

Witnesses said Cook left the scene of the crash and did not return until half an hour later. A Breathalyzer test at that point registered her blood alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

Cook resigned in May 2015, and the church deposed her from the ministry the same day.

Cook pleaded guilty later that year to four criminal charges, including failing to remain at the scene of a fatal collision. Doory sentenced her to 10 years on that charge, but suspended all but two years, a period he ruled would run in addition to a five-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

Cook’s request would have those two sentences run concurrently.

If Doory grants the sentence modification, he is not bound to allow the full two-year reduction Cook is seeking.

But Gerald Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email that if the full reduction is granted, Cook would be eligible for release on the day of the hearing, just over a month from now.

She would then be subject to supervision until Oct. 21, 2020, the date her revised five-year prison term would expire.

Shields said violent offenders are required to serve at least 50 percent of their original sentence under state law, nonviolent offenders at least 25 percent. Under state law, Cook’s convictions are categorized as nonviolent offenses, Shields said. If Cook is released next month, she would have served three years and 15 days of a five-year sentence, Shields said, or about 60 percent. If she is released next August, she’ll have served a little more than half of her seven-year sentence.

David Irwin, Cook’s attorney, disputed a report by Maryland Parole Commission Chair David Blumberg this year that his client “took no responsibility” for her actions and displayed a “lack of remorse.” Cook thinks “every day” about the harm she caused to the Palermo family and “exhibits extreme remorse,” Irwin said.

“We know she deserved to be punished,” Irwin said. “She knows it.”

At the same time, he said, the terms of Cook’s imprisonment have actually been more severe than those for most people convicted of similar offenses.

He said Cook is seeking “mercy from the court” in light of what he called the “extraordinary” work she has done during her nearly three years behind bars.

The seven-page motion includes what amounts to a portfolio of Cook’s work in prison. Because of her work, she has already earned a reduction in her sentence of 10 days for every month served.

As soon as she arrived at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Cook immediately “began to explore education and self-help opportunities,” according to the motion. She was not eligible for many during her first few months. but within a year or so was enrolled in a peer-led program that promotes “understanding and healing between offenders and those whose lives have been damaged by the crime;” enrolled in a class that focuses on the impact of crime on victims; took Bible classes and courses on transitioning back into society, and attended weekly prison-wide Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Cook then collaborated with others to organize — and eventually began leading — a second weekly AA meeting in her building. Last summer, the report continues, Warden Margaret Chippendale approached Cook to ask her help in organizing a prison-wide substance-abuse awareness program. Cook served as a keynote speaker. Another certificate marks Cook’s three years of sobriety.

Letters are included from fellow inmates hailing Cook’s counseling work with others who struggle with addiction.

One was written by Anne Kirsch of Baltimore, who is serving a 30-year sentence for manslaughter in the death of her infant son and has acknowledged that she was addicted to heroin when she was pregnant with the boy.

“I’ve known Heather Cook for a year now,” Kirsch wrote, “and she’s a source of inspiration and hope for me. She helped me in my recovery by sharing her story, what happened in her past and how she’s maintained her sobriety for over three years. The fact that she didn’t give up in prison helped me realize I could make it too.”

Kirsch wrote that she supports the sentence modification because “there are so many people out there who are lost, trapped by addiction and despair, people who haven’t experienced their tragedy yet and need her in the trenches to lead them out so they never have to.”

Cook has also been writing a regular column on addiction for the prison newsletter, The Pulse. The writing samples included in the motion do not address her struggles with drunk driving, but are more general. Cook has been arrested for the offense twice, once in the Palermo case and once on the Eastern Shore in 2010, when a Breathalyzer measured her blood-alcohol level at 0.27 percent and she was found to have marijuana in her car.

George Hammerbacher, a longtime addiction counselor in Anne Arundel County, says it’s no small feat to achieve three years’ sobriety in prison, where alcohol and other potentially addictive substances are banned but often available. Still, he said, it’s impossible to know whether Cook has made sufficient change to be able to handle the temptations freedom would offer.

“At this stage of her recovery, there’s no doubt she is very fragile, and I would absolutely make sure she cannot under any circumstances be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle — not now, not ever again,” said Hammerbacher, who has 24 years of experience in the field.

Rock, Tom Palermo’s sister-in-law, says Cook’s efforts in no way measure up to the suffering her actions have caused — a form of pain she says Rachel Palermo is handling with admirable courage.

“It's been very hard,” Rock said. “She is bravely showing her children how to grieve, how to move forward, how to hold on to the love that their father had for them, to grip his memory tightly.”

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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