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Heather Cook denied parole for failure to be contrite

Heather Cook denied parole for failure to be contrite
Former bishop's only chance for parole slips through her fingers

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
May 10, 2017

JESSUP, MARYLAND -- Former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook's plea for leniency fell on deaf ears Tuesday morning (May 9) when the Maryland Parole Commission turned thumbs down on her request for early release from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Cook, who is serving seven years behind bars for the December 27, 2014, drunken hit and run accident which claimed the life of 41-year-old Thomas Palermo, had hoped to be able to serve the rest of her imposed sentence at home while on supervised parole. Maryland automatically provides the opportunity for non-violent inmates to appear for a one-time-only early release parole hearing after serving one quarter of their original sentence. Maryland does not list vehicular manslaughter as a violent crime.

In Cook's case, a seven-year sentence translates into 84 months. A quarter of that is 21 months. She started her sentence in late October 2015, so July 2017 will be her 21st month behind bars.

However, Cook's open parole hearing did not go as she had hoped. Within short order she learned that her request has been categorically denied and she would have to spend at least another two or more years in the Jessup women's prison before she would be released on a mandatory parole to finish out her sentence under close parole supervision until October, 2023. The she faces another five years of probation.

Initially, Cook could have received upwards to 39 years in prison for the drunken fatal hit and run accident. The Baltimore City State's Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, wanted to make an example of the Episcopal bishop suffragan.

On Jan. 9, 2015, one day after she was sworn in as the new state's attorney, Mosby levied various charges against Cook including: vehicular manslaughter, criminal negligent manslaughter, driving under the influence resulting in a homicide, use of a text-messaging device while driving, resulting in an accident, duty of the driver to remain at an accident resulting in death, duty of the driver to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury, duty of the driver to remain at an accident resulting in death, duty of the driver to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol.

"This is a very tragic incident and I think that this is evident that we are going to apply justice fairly and equality to everybody across the board," Mosby said as she announced Cook's traffic and criminal charges at a Jan. 9 press conference. "We are going to pursue justice and we will treat Miss Heather Cook the same way we would anyone else ... no one is above the law."

Eventually, through a plea bargain, the charges were whittled down to four to which Cook admitted her guilt, including: automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, driving while intoxicated, and texting while driving. As a result, she was given 20 years behind bars, but 13 years of that sentence was suspended, leaving seven years to be served -- five years for causing Palermo's death and two years for leaving the scene of an accident. She also faces five years of probation following the completion of her prison sentence.

Once Cook's case came to court in October, 2015, it was handled by Assistant Baltimore City State's Attorney, Kurt Bjorklund, because Mosley was caught up with the details of dealing with the explosive case involving Freddie Gray, a young black man who died while in police custody.

By noon on Tuesday, the denied parole story was breaking and disgraced former bishop Heather Cook again became the subject of headlines and sound bites.

"Heather Cook at her parole hearing: No remorse, no apology" (Baltimore Brew); "Heather Cook, Drunk Driving Bishop Who Killed Cyclist, Denied Parole" (NewsMax); "Bishop Who Killed Cyclist While Driving Drunk to Remain in Prison" & "Group Opposes Parole for Ex-Bishop Who Killed Cyclist" (WRC-TV 4); "Commission has denied Heather Cook parole" (Episcopal Cafe); "No Parole For Bishop Who Killed Cyclist" (Patch); "Former Baltimore Bishop Who Killed Cyclist Denied Early Release" (WJZ-TV 13); "Former Bishop Denied Parole In Deadly Hit-And-Run" & "Parole denied for Heather Cook" WBAL); and "Early parole rejected for former Bishop Heather Cook" (Baltimore Sun).

Also: "Parole chairman: Former bishop called fatal crash a 'brutal irony,' lacked remorse" (FOX Five News); "Driving drunk: Bishop who killed cyclist is denied parole" (Associated Press); "Eligible for parole after 18 months in prison: The builder, the bishop, and a most violent crime" (Cycling Tips); "Opponents Line Up Against Parole for Episcopal Bishop" (Delmarva Public Radio); "Former bishop convicted of automobile manslaughter denied parole" (Episcopal News Service); "No Parole for Heather Cook" (The Living Church); and "Former top female Episcopal bishop who killed cyclist while drunk driving and texting two days after Christmas is denied parole" (London Daily Mail).

However, this time the headlines swirling around Heather Cook will be rather short lived. Within hours, the news which pushes her story off the front page was that President Donald Trump has axed FBI Director James Comey.

Cook's parole hearing was less than two hours long. Afterward it did not take much time for the parole commissioners to reject the former bishop's appeal for early release. Following the decision, Maryland Parole Commission Chairman, David Blumberg, met with reporters on the lawn outside of the large women's prison.

Heather Cook is incarcerated in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. It is the only state prison for women in the state. It houses 800 women whose offenses range from white collar crime to murder. Some women, who were jailed in their early 20s, are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Even though it is a women's prison, it can be a frightening, dangerous place.

"Today the Maryland Parole Commission refused outright Heather Cook's parole ..." Blumberg said beneath a clear blue spring sky.

Blumberg, who was wearing a colorful lavender suit coat, with matching shirt and tie, was standing against a backdrop of gray prison gates and fences topped with shiny silver razor wire.

"... Meaning she will have to serve her sentence until her mandatory release date," the head of the Parole Commission explained.

The Baltimore cycling community was not happy that Cook came up for parole.
Now a white "ghost" bike is attached to a light pole at the 5700 block of Roland Avenue in Baltimore as a silent reminder of where Thomas Palermo was hit while riding his bicycle on a sunny post Christmas Saturday morning in 2014.

Blumberg explained that the parole commissioners' rationale was that the former bishop left the scene of the accident even after the bicyclist's helmet was imbedded in her shattered windshield. Instead, she returned home where she made two calls -- one to her "co-worker" Diocese of Maryland's Canon to the Ordinary, Scott Slater, and another to her "boy friend" presumably former Episcopal priest, Mark Hansen -- but made no calls to 911 seeking help for the dying biker from emergency personnel.

During her sentencing court appearance, Baltimore City Prosecutor Bjorklund noted that she also brought her dog home.

"She made sure her dog was okay, but she didn't care about another human," Bjorklund said at the sentencing on Oct. 27, 2015.

Blumberg also mentioned that Cook has an earlier drunk driving conviction in Caroline County, Maryland, and that she did not learn any lesson from that previous experience.

"This was her second alcohol related case," he explained. "The first time (September, 2010) as soon as she went off the interlock device, she went back to drinking."

Cutting to the crux of the Commission's denial, Blumberg said: "During the hearing she did not accept responsibility. She lacked remorse. She called it a 'brutal irony', and she did not apologize to the victim (family) at any time."

She spoke about herself ... Her recollection of the accident ...Her family ...Her issues ... Her needs ... Her treatments ...Her disease ...

Palermo's widow, Rachel, attended the open parole hearing, but remained mute. The last time she saw Heather Cook was at the sentencing hearing.

At that time, Cook said in a statement: "I'm so sorry for the pain and agony I have caused. This is my fault. I accept complete responsibility. I wish there was something I could do or say to make things better. I have often felt that I did not deserve to be alive."

"I believe the only thing for which you are sorry is getting caught," replied the victim's mother, Patricia Palermo.

"Today is really about Tom," the victim's widow -- the mother of his two young children -- said at Tuesday's news conference. "I ask this: if you still talk on your phone or text while driving, please put your phone down. If you plan to go out and drink, please set up a ride before you go. I want you to think of a six and an eight-year-old who wish their Dad was still here. I want you to think of me and my pain. I want you to think of Tom's parents and their loss. And I want you to think of your own loved ones."

Blumberg also mentioned that Cook avoided answering some of the commissioners' questions. As a result -- taking all the factors into account, including "the nature and circumstances of the offense" -- the commissioners' short deliberation resulting in their unanimous decision that Heather Cook "was not worthy of a discretionary early release."

The parole commission is victim oriented as its website explains: "The Maryland Parole Commission is charged with determining on a case-by-case basis whether inmates serving sentences of six months or more in state or local facilities are suitable for release into the community under certain conditions or supervision by the Division of Parole and Probation. The commission holds open parole hearings and has a strong commitment to victim rights."

The parole commission's ruling is final with no other recourse available. Cook will have to serve more than four years of her seven-year sentence before her mandatory parole date comes up.

"This is something that is not appealable," Blumberg explained. "So there is no court recourse for Miss Cook in this case."

Not only is the decision not appealable, Tuesday's hearing was Cook's one and only opportunity to seek an early release. There will not be another parole hearing held until she is released at her mandatory release date which is tentatively set for March 23, 2020. But with time off for good behavior, she could be released sometime in 2019, at which point she would be 62.

However, her exact release date, is still to determined, in part, by a complex formula involving time shaved off the sentence for good conduct which is like a secular system of indulgences, where an inmate can receive up to 20 days a month off for all around good behavior while in prison and participating in educational classes, work programs as well as special projects.

Many states allow prisoners to be released to early parole to help with prison overcrowding. The United States Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics says that 95% of all state prisoners are eventually released and are not serving life sentences. And 80% are released to parole before serving out their complete prison sentences. However, discretionary parole is used less often than mandatory parole.

The Justice Policy Institute has determined that it takes Maryland more than $33,000 a year to house, feed and guard an incarcerated prisoner, where a mandatory or discretionary parolee only costs the state less than $1,500 for a year's worth of supervision and paperwork.

Heather Cook has now served more time behind bars (18 months) than she did as an Episcopal bishop (seven months). When she was consecrated in 2014 as the bishop suffragan for the Diocese of Maryland, she was the 21st woman bishop in The Episcopal Church. Since then, four others have joined the stable of female bishops including: Audrey Scanlan (XI Central Pennsylvania); DeDe Duncan-Probe (XI Central New York); Gretchen Rehberg (XI Spokane); and most recently, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows ( XI Indianapolis). In Texas, Jennifer Brooke-Davidson is slated to join the Episcopal House of Bishops in July as bishop suffragan in the Diocese of West Texas and Bishop Laura J. Ahrens (Bishop Suffragan - Connecticut) has thrown her mitre in the ring, seeking to become the XI Bishop of Delaware.

Cook's spot in the Diocese of Maryland was taken by Bishop Chilton Knudsen (formerly the VIII Bishop of Maine), who became the assistant bishop -- not bishop suffragan -- of Maryland.

The Diocese of Maryland has not issued a statement following Heather Cook's parole hearing.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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