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First up for Mosby: handling Palermo death

Mourners gather outside Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church following the funeral for Thomas Palermo. Palermo was killed last week after he was struck by a vehicle driven by an Episcopal bishop while riding his bike on Roland Avenue.
Mourners gather outside Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church following the funeral for Thomas Palermo. Palermo was killed last week after he was struck by a vehicle driven by an Episcopal bishop while riding his bike on Roland Avenue. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

New State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby comes into office with a major decision looming: how to handle the death of Thomas Palermo, the prominent local cyclist who died in a collision with a car driven by an Episcopal bishop two days after Christmas.

Mosby, who was inaugurated Thursday evening, plans to address the case during a news conference at 11 a.m. Friday.

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Palermo, a married father of two young children, was cycling in North Roland Park on the afternoon of Dec. 27 when the crash occurred. The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has identified Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook, elected last year to the No. 2 position in the diocese, as the driver of the car.

David Irwin, Cook's attorney, said Thursday that he had not been told about Mosby's news conference. He declined to comment further on the case.

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Police, who have released few details about the case, have faced mounting calls from a vocal cycling community to charge Cook in Palermo's death. Some city lawyers have questioned why police did not make an arrest immediately.

The case has also roiled the Episcopal Church. The Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, a former bishop of Maryland, wrote in a church email newsletter Thursday that Cook's actions after the collision — she drove away, before returning a short time later — mean she is no longer fit to serve as a bishop.

"She has violated the basis for our trust in leaving the scene of the accident," wrote Ihloff, now the interim rector of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore. "All persons have a moral responsibility to stop, whatever the nature of an accident. When a life hangs in the balance, that duty to stop and assist is especially crucial."

Ihloff wrote: "Can she be forgiven? Yes, by God and after repentance. Can she be trusted as a leader of the Christian Church? Sadly, 'No.'"

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Church officials acknowledged Thursday that the 304 delegates who voted in Cook's election last May were not told that she had been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in 2010. The information was disclosed to a search committee that vetted candidates, church spokeswoman Sharon J. Tillman said.

Cook pleaded guilty in that case, according to court records. She had been stopped in Caroline County and was found with a blood-alcohol content of 0.27 percent — more than three times the legal limit. She was granted probation before judgment and ordered to pay a fine of $300.

Cook won a close election in May against three other candidates.

The Rev. Timothy H. Grayson, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Baltimore, said clergy expressed concern and frustration this week that they were not informed of Cook's record.

Grayson was a participant in a meeting of clergy Tuesday to discuss the Dec. 27 crash and its aftermath.

"Many people said that had they known [about Cook's 2010 arrest], they would have voted otherwise" in the election last May, Grayson said. "There was certainly [a] level of dismay. Some people said they felt let down. It was just big surprise."

Police have not said whether alcohol was a factor in the collision with Palermo or whether Cook was subjected to a Breathalyzer or other testing to determine if she was intoxicated.

Palermo, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who built and repaired bicycle frames on the side, was well known in the local cycling community. Community members have called on authorities to charge Cook.

It's not unusual for police and prosecutors to delay filing charges in traffic deaths.

Homicides involving a car are typically more complicated to prove in court than those involving a gun or a knife, and officials generally prefer to conduct a complete investigation before filing charges.

If authorities write tickets or file charges too early, they say, later attempts to file more serious charges could run afoul of constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

Delays can happen even when there is a suspect clearly in the picture. When Johnny Johnson struck and killed city worker Matthew Hersl in broad daylight in front of City Hall in 2013, it was a week before charges were filed.

Johnson pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and possession of heroin and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Ivan J. Bates, a city defense lawyer not connected to the case, said a suspect who fails a Breathalyzer test at the scene of an accident can be charged on the spot. Charges can later be amended, he said, and if investigators need more time, a judge will almost certainly grant it.

Bates said investigations into crashes have to consider a number of factors, including whether the victim played a part in his or her own death.

"To prove vehicle manslaughter is very difficult," he said.

The church is conducting its own investigation into the incident. Ihloff, the former bishop, wrote that it "will almost assuredly result in Heather being deposed."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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