Prosecutor opposes early release for ex-bishop Heather Cook who fatally struck Baltimore bicyclist

A former Episcopal bishop serving a prison sentence for fatally striking a bicyclist with her car while drunk should be denied a reduction in sentence, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office argued in a court filing that captured the fierceness of the victim’s family’s opposition to her request.

A six-page memorandum, signed by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Assistant State’s Attorney Kurt Bjorklund, says the relatives of Thomas Palermo are “united in their vehement opposition to any reduction in sentence.”

Palermo, 41, was a husband and a father of two young children when he was killed Dec. 27, 2014.

Prosecutors also expressed skepticism regarding the nature of Cook’s rehabilitation efforts and maintained she remains a threat to public safety in the document filed Friday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Cook pleaded guilty in 2015 to four charges: auto manslaughter, failure to remain at the scene of a fatal accident, driving under the influence, and texting while driving resulting in death.

Prosecutors sought a sentence of 20 years with all but 10 years suspended. A judge ordered an aggregate sentence of 20 years with all but seven years suspended. Cook has served nearly three.

Cook, 62, initiated a motion in March to modify her sentence. She is asking the judge to alter two of her four sentences so they run concurrently, rather than consecutively.

That would make her eligible for release as early as Nov. 5, state prison officials said. That’s the date Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory has set for a hearing on the motion.

Credits she has accrued by taking part in prison programs already have earned Cook a sentence reduction of more than three years. She is currently set to be released Aug. 6.

The prosecutors’ response to Cook’s request recounts details of the crash that killed Palermo as he rode south in the 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 been arrested before for drunk driving. Police on the Eastern Shore pulled her over in 2010 and found a blood alcohol level of 0.27. Police discovered marijuana and several liquor bottles in her car and said Cook had driven for more than a mile on a shredded tire. She was given probation before judgement — a sentence that gives a defendant a chance later to expunge their record — and a $300 fine.

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.

Cook has applied for relief in her current sentence twice this year, once for parole in May and once for home detention in July. She was denied both times.

The filing opposing her latest motion argues such requests inflict great suffering on the Palermo family, forcing his widow, Rachel Rock Palermo, the couple’s children and others, including Thomas Palermo’s parents, to relive the horrors of the tragedy.

“The post-conviction arm of the criminal justice system has exacted an unimaginable toll on the family,” it reads. “Each successive hearing forces numerous members of the family to once again confront the profound loss” caused by Cook.

The filing goes on to question the significance of the “accomplishments” Cook cited in her motion and argues she remains a public safety threat.

Cook “was not a wayward youth, incapable of understanding right from wrong,” it reads. “Her brain was fully formed; she benefited from a privileged existence.”

The memorandum describes Cook’s participation in a prison Toastmasters program as a “trifle” and her inclusion of it in her motion as “the height of hubris,” given that she “spoke in public for her professional livelihood.”

Cook said in her motion that she has taken part in and led weekly addiction recovery meetings at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, organized a weekend symposium that focused on addiction recovery, and recently celebrated three years of sobriety. The prosecutors’ filing asserts Cook’s “addiction and selfish nature” raise questions about how important those activities have been.

The prosecuting attorneys’ memorandum is bolstered by 20 letters from Palermo’s relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Many attest in emotional language to the love he shared with his family, to the hole in their lives his death has caused and to the family’s struggle to cope in his absence.

Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, argued in his client’s motion that her work in a range of prison programs attested to her rehabilitation and recovery, but many of the letter writers opposing her sentence modification questioned that.

Rachel Palermo wrote that at a parole hearing for the the ex-bishop, Cook showed no evidence of remorse.

She said Cook’s only reference to her late husband came when Cook mentioned a “human form” she realized she had struck with her car.

Rachel Palermo’s sister, Alisa Rock, wrote to voice her “strident opposition” to the request.

“[Cook] used to preach from the pulpit for a large, well-established religious order,” Rock wrote. “Am I surprised that she’s now an officer with Toastmasters or that she’s writing proposals in prison? No, I’m not surprised. And I’m not impressed. Her ambition and striving are what led her to not deal sufficiently with her addiction in the first place.”

“Heather Cook needs to be held fully accountable by the court and by our community for her actions that led to Tom’s death and for her thoughtless abandonment of him.”

Irwin said he’s not surprised by the strong opposition to the motion.

“I certainly understand and very much respect the reaction,” he said. “But we feel that Ms. Cook has displayed extraordinary rehabilitation, and we are asking the court to extend some mercy.”

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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