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Former Bishop Heather Cook's parole hearing set for Tuesday

Bicycling advocates are speaking out against the possibility of parole for Heather Elizabeth Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who pleaded guilty to four criminal charges in the December 2014 car crash that killed a married father of two.

Cook, 60, is serving a seven-year prison sentence on charges of vehicular manslaughter, driving while drunk, leaving the scene of an accident and texting while driving in the crash that killed Thomas Palermo as he cycled on Roland Avenue.

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Cook is scheduled to appear before a parole hearing Tuesday morning. It will be her first opportunity for parole since she began serving her term in October 2015.

Because Maryland law does not classify vehicular manslaughter as a violent offense, she becomes eligible for parole upon serving 25 percent of her sentence in July.

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Palermo, a senior software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who built bike frames, was well known in the local cycling community. Bike Maryland is one of the groups urging the Maryland Parole Commission to deny parole in the case.

"Heather Cook committed a violent act, one that took a father away from two young children, denied a wife a loving husband and partner, took a son from loving parents and affected our community of cyclists across Maryland dramatically and potentially irrecoverably," the organization wrote in an open letter to commission Chairman David Blumberg.

"Heather Cook should be denied parole," the group said. "She made deliberate choices leading up to killing Tom."

Jon Korin, president of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, agreed.

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"The purpose of incarceration is to punish the offender, provide justice for the victims, protect the public, rehabilitate the offender and deter others from committing the same crime," he wrote in a letter to the commission. "Allowing parole after only 25% of a 7 year sentence where a man was killed does not fulfill any of these objectives. This is especially true given Ms. Cook's history, decision to drive impaired and intentional hit-and-run."

Palermo's sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, who has served as family spokesperson since the crash, said she had no comment on the hearing.

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Cook 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 did not see Cook's vehicle coming.

Witnesses said she left the scene and drove to her nearby 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.

Cook pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving charge on the Eastern Shore in 2010 in which she registered a blood alcohol level of 0.27 percent. In that incident, police said they found marijuana and empty liquor bottles in her car, and that Cook had been driving on a shredded tire.

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

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland had elevated Cook to its second-highest position in May of 2014. Katharine Jefferts Schori, then presiding bishop of the national church, had presided at the ceremony during which Cook was consecrated as bishop.

Diocesan officials said the search committee that selected Cook was aware of the 2010 case but that committee members were unfamiliar with the 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, the first female bishop in the diocese, resigned her position 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 Rev. Dan Webster, a spokesman for the diocese, said Monday the diocese and the Episcopal Church at large had "learned a lot and would continue to learn about our selection of ordained leaders," and that the diocese had adopted a newly revised alcohol policy.

He added that a study on "impaired leadership" is underway across the church, with recommendations due at the Episcopal Church General Convention next year.

Cook is expected to go before two parole board commissioners at the hearing Tuesday. It is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, where she has been held since her sentencing.

Three witnesses are to speak on behalf of parole, three against.

If both commissioners agree on a decision, their ruling will be final, said Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

If the commissioners don't agree, Shields said, the case will be referred to the full commission.

The hearing is open to the public, but Shields said all seats have been claimed.

Webster said he knew of no one from the diocese who planned to attend in an official capacity.

Shields said he expected a crowd at the facility. Commission officials are to explain their decision immediately after the hearing.

"There's a great deal of interest in this case," he said. "It could be a bit of a zoo."

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