Early parole rejected for former Bishop Heather Cook

The Maryland Parole Commission on Tuesday denied the parole request of Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for the drunken-driving crash that killed a bicyclist in 2014.

Commission chairman David Blumberg said the two commissioners who ruled on the case told him they denied Cook parole in part because she "took no responsibility" for her actions and displayed a "lack of remorse" during the 90-minute hearing at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Cook's attorney for the hearing, Hunter L. Pruette, left without addressing reporters and could not be reached for comment.

Cook, 60, pleaded guilty in 2015 to charges of vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, driving while texting and leaving the scene of an accident in the crash that killed 41-year-old Thomas Palermo on Dec. 27, 2014.

She will no longer be eligible for parole.

The hearing was open to the public, but officials said all seats in the small room were taken. Blumberg was not present at the hearing, but he told reporters that the commissioners shared details of the hearing with him immediately afterward.

The commissioners' names were not released.

Blumberg said Cook spoke at length, calling her alcoholism a disease and describing the parole process as a "brutal irony," but never apologized to Rachel Palermo, Thomas' widow and the mother of his two children.

Because Maryland law does not classify vehicular manslaughter as a violent offense, an offender becomes eligible for parole upon serving 25 percent of his or her sentence. Cook reaches that milestone in July.

Blumberg said it would have been unusual for the commission to grant parole so early in a case involving vehicular manslaughter, in part because "many in the general public think these sentences are very short to start with."

"We got many calls to our office [from people] upset that a parole hearing was already being set," he said.

Parole commission members typically consider four main criteria during such hearings, Blumberg said: the degree to which an offender takes responsibility or displays "appropriate remorse," the continuing impact on victims and the question of public safety.

The commission took into account the circumstances surrounding the crash, Blumberg said. Cook drove away from the scene even when "the cyclist's helmet was actually stuck in her windshield," he said, and "when she went home she did not call 911 or any emergency personnel. She made two calls: one to her boyfriend and one to her co-worker."

The panel also considered Cook's history, he said. The crash was her second alcohol-related offense.

Cook pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge on the Eastern Shore in 2010. She was ordered to use a steering-wheel interlock device, Blumberg said, but "went back to drinking" as soon as the condition was lifted.

Though the hearing was unusually long, Blumberg said, it took "very little time" for the commission to agree to deny her parole.

Blumberg said her current release date is March 23, 2020, but given good behavior, including sufficient involvement in prison social programs, Cook could be released as early as 2019.

If she's released any time before her mandatory release date of October 21, 2022, Cook would be under supervised mandatory release until that date.

Rachel Palermo, 42, spoke to reporters after the hearing. Her voice choking with emotion, she said that "today is really about Tom" and "also about those who continue to love him and feel his loss."

Then she made a plea to anyone listening to avoid the kind of behavior that led to the crash that killed her husband.

"I ask this: if you still talk on your phone or text while driving, please put your phone down," she said. "If you plan to go out and drink, please set up a ride before you go. I want you to think of a 6- and an 8-year-old who wish their dad was still here. I want you to think of me and my pain. I want you to think of Tom's parents and their loss. And I want you to think of your own loved ones."

Palermo, a senior software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who built bike frames, was well known in the local cycling community.

Cook, then the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was driving south on Roland Avenue two days after Christmas 2014 when she drove her 2001 Subaru into a bike lane and struck Palermo, 41. Palermo was cycling in the same direction and apparently never saw her vehicle coming.

Witnesses said she left the scene and drove to her apartment complex before returning 30 minutes after the crash.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said a breathalyzer measured Cook's blood-alcohol level at 0.22 percent, nearly three times the legal limit in Maryland.

In her 2010 arrest, Cook registered a blood alcohol level of 0.27 percent. Police said she had been driving on a shredded tire, and they found marijuana and empty liquor bottles in her car.

The hearing Tuesday was Cook's first opportunity at parole since she was imprisoned on Oct. 27, 2015.

The Palermo case roiled the city's cycling community and the national Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland had elevated Cook to the position of bishop suffragan in May 2014. She was the first female bishop in the diocese. Katherine Jefferts Schori, then presiding bishop of the national church, had presided at the ceremony in which she was consecrated as a bishop.

Diocesan officials said the search committee that selected Cook was aware of her 2010 arrest, but committee members were unfamiliar with its details.

The panel left it up to Cook to tell her electors about it. Officials have said she alluded to the case in parish meetings, but only in vague terms.

Cook resigned her position on May 1, 2015. The Episcopal Church deposed her as a bishop in a separate action the same day.

Cook entered her guilty pleas that September.

The case prompted the governing body of the national Episcopal Church to pass resolutions acknowledging the church's role in the culture of alcohol and drug abuse and recommending that those nominated for higher office be questioned about addiction or substance issues early in the selection process.

In the days before the hearing, several cycling advocacy groups urged the commission to deny Cook's parole request.

One was the Baltimore-based nonprofit Bikemore. Executive director Liz Cornish said her organization supports the parole board's decision, but the larger question of cyclist and pedestrian safety remains largely unaddressed.

She cited the brevity of sentences in cases like Cook's as one example. "As advocates, we are working to ensure that those who are most vulnerable on the road have laws that protect them and help people who are driving irresponsibly to justice," she said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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