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

Baltimore judge denies ex-bishop Heather Cook's request for immediate release from prison in fatal DUI crash
Rachel Palermo attended Heather Cook's sentence reduction hearing

By Jonathan M. Pitts
Nov. 5, 2018

Heather Cook, a former Episcopal bishop serving a prison term for fatally striking a bicyclist while driving drunk in 2014, was denied a request Monday for a sentence modification that would have made her eligible for imminent release.

In issuing his ruling 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 criteria to be considered.

He said if he granted the terms 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.

If approved, would have cut two years off Cook's time served, leaving 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."

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.

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

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

Her expected release date remains Aug. 6.

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

Cook's attorney, David Irwin, read letters from each of the supporters 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."

Cook's words appeared to address the widespread perception -- Irwin called it "lore" surrounding the case -- that she felt no remorse for her crimes.

Irwin read aloud a letter he said Cook had written to Rachel Palermo, Tom Palermo's widow, months ago but did not send Palermo on advice of her legal team.

"I am sorry -- I am deeply sorry," Irwin read from the document. "I think of you ... each day I offer myself as a charnel for God to use ... I don't know any other way to atone for my actions. So that is what I do."

Early parole rejected for former Bishop Heather Cook

Nine members of Tom Palermo's family, including Rachel Palermo, sat in silence throughout the hearing as attorneys for both sides gave lengthy and at times impassioned statements.

They declined the opportunity to make a statement 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."

Palermo's words appeared to echoed the 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 help to Tom Palermo, and failing to return until half an hour later.

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