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A powerful and punishing finale in the Heather Cook case

For seventy-five minutes, the women who knew and loved Tom Palermo — his mother, his mother-in-law, his wife, his sisters-in-law — spoke for him while the woman who had killed him, Heather Cook, sat motionless at the trial table eight feet away, taking a punishment that will make seven years in prison seem like blessed relief.

Absolutely painful but absolutely necessary, the heartbreaking statements of the women from Tom Palermo's life resonated with anyone who had ever raised a child, who had ever fallen in love, who had ever started a family, who had ever imagined a long life with a single spouse.

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Their hands shook slightly as they read statements prepared in answer to the prosecutor's question: "How has this event affected you and your family?"

It was a little after 2 p.m. when the victim impact statements started in Baltimore Circuit Judge Tim Doory's drab, second-floor courtroom, with its old drapes, dirty windows and dingy shades. When they were called, each woman from Palermo's life sat in the witness stand. None appeared to look at Cook but for a split second. The former Episcopal bishop sat nearby in a gray barn coat with a black collar.

The sisters-in-law are from the Rock family. Palermo's wife is Rachel Rock Palermo. Her sisters and her mother each delivered statements, and their words came in cascades of anguish and anger, offered in moderate tones, marked with details about the day of Palermo's death last December on a Baltimore street that was supposed to be safe for bicyclists. Cook was driving while drunk and driving while texting when she struck Palermo from behind as he pedaled his bicycle along Roland Avenue.

And life has not been the same for the Palermo family and the Rocks. It will never be the same, all the women said.

Leah Rock worries about Rachel and her two small children, Sadie and Sam. She wonders if her sister will be able to keep her house. She finds herself crying at work at times. She put off planning her wedding because of Tom Palermo's death. She can't imagine Christmas ever being the same again because Tom died two days after the holiday.

Another sister, Alisa Rock, spoke of Rachel suddenly being a single parent and the responsibilities that brings.

Her mother, Frances Rock, spoke of Rachel and Tom's 12 years together — the joy she experienced in watching them build a life and start a family, the horror of watching Rachel explain to her two children that their father wasn't coming home. Frances Rock called Palermo's death a "catastrophic loss" for the family. "Father's Day was particularly hard," she said, and so were Tom's birthday in August and his and Rachel's wedding anniversary in September. "Platitudes and cliches do little to lessen our loss," she said. Cook had done "irreparable damage" to the family.

Nanci Hulting, another sister-in-law, also spoke of Christmas and the holiday's permanent association with Tom Palermo's death. She noted that Palermo had been an only son; she wondered who would watch out for his aging parents. Reading from her statement, she spoke to Cook without looking at her: "I can forgive you, but I cannot forget."

Then, the prosecutor, Kurt Bjorklund, read Rachel Rock Palermo's statement as the young widow sat in the second pew of the courtroom gallery. The statement spoke of her husband as "the most wonderful person" she ever knew. They had imagined growing old together.

Now, there are moments of "crushing silence" in the house, and she realizes she will never again hear her children exclaim, "Daddy's home!"

Rachel Rock Palermo said she wanted Cook to get 10 years in prison without probation, adding that she spends as little time as possible thinking about the woman who killed her husband. "I'd rather spend time thinking about others I care about," her statement said.

The last woman to speak for Tom Palermo was his mother, Patricia, who gave the full measure of the loss and spared none of us the details of her son's death — how he had been struck so hard that his body had dented the hood of Cook's car, how his head had slammed through the windshield, how his helmet had landed inside the car, how his body dropped into the street. And she expressed scorn for Cook's decision to leave the scene — a woman of the cloth who had ignored her duty to administer to the dying.

"God didn't do this," Patricia Palermo said. "God didn't take Tom. Heather Cook killed Tom."

The message from Tom Palermo's mother seemed so powerful and final, it was hard to imagine Cook or her attorney offering an answer. But the former bishop stood and turned toward the Palermos and the Rocks. She paused for 12 seconds to summon an apology to her lips, and it came up and out in soft tones — "Sorry for the pain and agony I have caused" — and Rachel Rock Palermo, never looking up, held her mother-in-law's hand until it was over.

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