Ex-Maryland bishop could be granted imminent release in DUI collision that killed cyclist

Heather Cook, a former Episcopal bishop who killed a bicyclist while driving drunk in 2014, will seek a reduction in her prison sentence at a court hearing in Baltimore on Monday that could lead to her imminent release.

UPDATE: Baltimore judge denies ex-bishop Heather Cook's request for immediate release from prison in fatal DUI crash »

Cook, 62, has served about three years of a five-year sentence for the crash in which she fatally struck Thomas Palermo with her car while driving under the influence and texting.

Originally sentenced to seven years on four charges, Cook has accumulated enough good-behavior credits while in prison to qualify for a two-year reduction in her sentence. Her expected release date, originally set for Oct. 27, 2022, is now Aug. 6 of next year.

If Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory approves a sentence modification motion Cook filed in March, two of her four sentences would be changed from consecutive to concurrent. That would cut an additional two years off Cook’s time served — making her eligible for release following the afternoon hearing at the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse in Baltimore.

Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Cook would not be released from the courthouse. She would go back to the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup “until such time as we have a revised commitment order and/or court release,” he said.

Doory granted Cook’s request for a hearing several weeks ago.

He could approve Cook’s entire request, choose terms less generous to her, or deny her motion.

David Irwin, Cook’s attorney, says his client is aware of the “immense harm” her actions have caused and shows “extreme remorse each and every day.”

He argues that Cook’s record behind bars — which includes extensive involvement in a variety of activities, including several addiction-recovery programs — shows her to be sufficiently rehabilitated to warrant a consideration of “mercy” from the court.

“She’s done an amazing amount of hard work in prison to help other women, to rehabilitate herself, and she’s in recovery from her alcoholism,” Irwin said. “She just hopes the judge will show her some mercy.”

Prosecutors and the Palermo family could hardly disagree more.

Cook has already applied for sentence relief twice, in May 2017 for parole and in July for home detention.

She was denied both times, but Rachel Palermo — Palermo’s widow and the mother of the couple’s two children — has said each such request summons excruciating memories for her and her family and shows that Cook fails to appreciate either the extent of her alcohol addiction or the gravity of her mistakes.

The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office filed a motion last month arguing against Cook’s early release. It included often-emotional letters from more than 20 friends and members of the extended Palermo family. All expressed outrage at the prospect of an early release.

The letter from Rachel Palermo, written in September, reflected both the depth of her family’s grief and struggles in the aftermath of her husband’s death and the vehemence of their opposition. According to the letter, Cook showed no remorse at her parole hearing last year.

“She never once referred to my husband by name. She only referred to him one single time — I’ll never forget what she said — she said ‘I realized I had hit a human form.’ I detected no remorse whatsoever,” Palermo wrote.

“Our pain is still fresh. Our pain is still deep. Please stand by your original sentencing decision. Please do not allow Heather Cook’s sentences to be reduced in any way,” she concluded.

The prosecutors’ response to Cook’s request recounts details of the crash that killed Palermo as he rode south in a Roland Avenue bike lane, including the extensive injuries he suffered, Cook’s decision to leave the scene for 30 minutes and a Breathalyzer test that measured Cook’s blood alcohol level at 0.22, nearly three times the legal limit for driving. It later emerged that Cook had also been arrested in 2010 for drunk driving.

Cook was the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland when she struck Palermo. Cook resigned in May 2015, and the church deposed her from the ministry the same day.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to present witnesses at Monday’s hearing.

Doory is expected to announce his decision at the end of the 2 p.m. hearing, which will be open to the public.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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