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

A Baltimore judge has denied former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook’s request for an early release from her prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist while driving drunk in 2014.

In issuing his ruling Monday at the conclusion of a sometimes contentious 75-minute hearing, Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory said he believed Cook has demonstrated “substantial rehabilitation” during her three years behind bars, but that was not the sole criterion to be considered.

He said if he granted the sentence modification Cook requested — that two of her four sentences be changed from consecutive to concurrent status — it would amount to ruling that she spend no time behind bars on one of those counts: the crime of leaving the scene of a collision. It also would have cut two years off the time Cook ultimately spends in prison, making her eligible for almost immediate release.

Doory said he learned a basic tenet for deciding such cases from a “brilliant” judge years ago — that “concurrent time is no time at all” — and he has tried to make that idea a “cornerstone” of his rulings on similar cases.

“Can I justify no time at all for leaving the scene? I’m sorry to say that I cannot,” he said. “The motion is denied.”

Cook, 62, was sentenced to seven years in prison for the crash in which she struck and killed Thomas Palermo with her car.

She already has accumulated enough credits for good behavior to have her time served reduced to five years.

Her expected release date remains Aug. 6.

About 100 people attended the hearing Monday afternoon, including Rachel Palermo, the victim’s wife, and eight other family members, who sat in silence as the judge heard arguments from both sides about whether Cook was remorseful and whether her actions behind bars justified her request.

Addressing the court first, Cook’s lead attorney, David Irwin, highlighted her involvement in numerous programs at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women and contested what he called the “lore” surrounding his client — the widely reported notion that she has shown little remorse for her crimes.

In May 2017, after a hearing in which Cook requested parole, David Blumberg, the chairman of the state parole commission, said at a press conference that Cook had shown no remorse, but Irwin said Blumberg had not even been present at the hearing.

He also said Cook speaks often of her remorse and read from a letter of apology he said Cook wrote to Rachel Palermo, Tom Palermo’s widow, months ago but did not send on advice of counsel.

“I am sorry — I am deeply sorry,” Irwin read from the document. “I think of you … each day I offer myself as a channel for God to use ... I don’t know any other way to atone for my actions. So that is what I do.”

Assistant Bishop Chilton Knudsen, Cook’s successor as second-in-command to Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, and representatives of an addiction recovery program and Toastmasters International attended in support of Cook.

Irwin read letters of support from each before informing the court that Cook wanted to make a statement.

She rose and addressed Doory directly.

“I’m so sorry for the pain and the loss that I have caused,” she said quietly, her voice shaking. “There really are no words. … I owe a debt that I cannot pay. I believe that God’s call on my life at this time is very simple — to work the program that keeps my sobriety strong and to help other women free themselves from the grip of addiction. It’s the only offering that I have to make, to use my experience to prevent future tragedy.”

The nine members of Tom Palermo’s family watched in silence even as Assistant State’s Attorney Kurt Bjorklund rose to voice his and the family’s “vehement opposition” to Cook’s motion.

Bjorklund reiterated the major points of a memorandum he had earlier filed with the court — that Cook’s repeated requests for relief in sentencing take an “unimaginable toll” on the Palermo family, that Cook’s good works while behind bars were no more than she should have done, and that Cook — who was also arrested in 2010 for driving under the influence — remains “a threat to public safety.”

Irwin had said Cook was only seeking the kind of relief any client in her situation would request — and that any competent attorney would file for — but Bjorklund found fault with that reasoning.

“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” he said. “Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

He then called on Cook to withdraw her motion — a suggestion to which Irwin angrily objected.

Doory sustained the objection.

The Palermo family declined the opportunity to speak during the hearing, but Rachel Palermo read from a statement on the courthouse steps afterward as light rain fell.

“Today I want to remember not only Tom but the people who stopped to help my husband on the day that he was killed,” she said. “I want to thank the several teen-aged boys from Boys’ Latin School who saw Tom on the ground and who stopped to offer assistance. I want to thank Monqer Lyon, who gave chase. I want to thank the residents and the deliveryman who called 911 or who simply stopped to be there for Tom. It brings me peace to know that Tom was not alone at that time.

“Lastly, for those who have lost a loved one due to a crime and for whom their case is still unsolved, my heart is with you. And that’s all I have to say today.”

Her words echoed letters she and others in her late husband’s extended family have sent to the court, many of which harshly criticized Cook for leaving the scene of the accident, failing to administer aid to Tom Palermo, and failing to return until half an hour had passed.

Doory explained some of his legal reasoning before issuing his ruling. Every decision regarding sentencing, he said, should take four factors into account: the rehabilitation of the defendant, the deterrent effect on the defendant, the deterrent effect on others who are “similarly situated,” and the administration of just punishment.

He said he was convinced Cook had satisfied the first three conditions but that granting her request would fail the fourth.

Irwin said that it was “heartbreaking” that his client “wasn’t granted relief” — but pleased that “the judge acknowledged her remorse.”

“That is one of the things that has been haunting her,” he said.

Cook looked shaken when she heard the ruling.

A friend and longtime supporter of Cook’s, Mark Hansen, mouthed the words “I love you” as bailiffs put handcuffs back on her wrists. Cook’s eyes closed, and she shook her head as she was led from the courtroom.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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