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Episcopal bishop enters not-guilty plea in cyclist's death

Heather Elizabeth Cook, the Episcopal bishop accused of driving under the influence and killing a local bicyclist in December, made her first public appearance since the accident, accepting a trial date of June 4 during an arraignment Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Neatly dressed in a black pantsuit, white blouse and silver brooch, Cook sat solemnly beside her attorney, David Irwin, during a hearing that lasted under five minutes.

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Circuit Judge Michael A. DiPietro did not ask her to speak during the proceedings, and Cook made no public comment afterward before leaving in a white sedan driven by a friend as cameras clicked.

By accepting the court date, Cook entered a plea of not guilty on all 13 charges against her, Irwin said. He declined to say whether her legal team would seek a plea deal and noted that during the trial she could enter a different plea to individual charges.

Cook, 58, faces charges that include automobile manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of an accident. If convicted on all charges, she could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

She entered the courtroom without fanfare about 20 minutes before the 9:30 a.m. hearing, her eyes slightly downcast behind a pair of glasses, and took a seat in a front row. Cook was alone for much of the time as the hearing approached.

She never looked toward the bench two rows behind her, where five members of the extended family of Thomas Palermo, the cyclist killed in the crash, sat quietly.

Rachel Palermo, the cyclist's widow, was not there, but her parents, Fran and Paul Rock; her sisters, Nancy Hulting and Alisa Rock, and Alisa Rock's husband, Jim Wade, were. They listened to the proceedings closely, their expressions at times distraught.

In a statement the Palermo family released after the hearing, Alisa Rock said they attended in support of Rachel Palermo and her two young children.

"We were hopeful that Bishop Heather Cook would do the right thing and take responsibility for her actions by pleading guilty," the statement read. "We are disappointed that this did not happen today, but we know that this is the first step in a long process."

Authorities allege that Cook was driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed Palermo on Dec. 27 on Roland Avenue in Roland Park. They say she initially left the scene of the crash before returning.

The state's attorney's office said Cook's blood-alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland.

Cook is free on $2.5 million bail. Irwin said earlier this week that Cook has been in treatment for alcohol abuse but declined to say where.

"Bishop Cook is doing well. She's still in treatment for her disease. She's doing well in that treatment," Irwin said. "Of course, she's still very distraught" about the case and how it has impacted the Palermo family."

He said Cook wants to reach out to the Palermo family.

"I do know she would do that if she could," he said. But she is taking his advice not to do so because of the legal implications, he said.

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"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Palermo family. We're all saying our prayers. It's a horrible situation," he told reporters after the arraignment. "We will be in court on June 4th."

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