A Baltimore judge denied this afternoon a reduction in Heather E. Cook’s prison sentence that would have meant almost immediate release for the former Episcopal bishop who killed a bicyclist while driving drunk in 2014.
Cook’s lawyers argued for mercy, saying the 62-year-old had been rehabilitated.
But Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Doory refused. He cited the words of a mentor on the bench whose dictum was “concurrent time is no time at all.”
“Can I justify no time at all for leaving the scene [of a fatal accident]? I’m sorry to say, I cannot,” Doory said.
Cook had been asking that two of her four sentences be changed from consecutive to concurrent, a change which Doory said would essentially mean she was never punished for leaving the accident scene.
Instead of walking out of the courtroom as a free woman, Cook was returned this afternoon to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women at Jessup to serve out the remaining nine months of her sentence.
Doory said he believed Cook felt remorse (“I believe that she has changed”) and urged her to continue her good works during her remaining time in prison to help others.
“I Love You”
Upon hearing Doory’s decision, Cook visibly sagged in her seat.
She lowered her head into her hands and then dropped her head nearly to the table.
As sheriff deputies handcuffed her and attached the cuffs to the shackles, she shot an anguished look at Mark Hansen, a former Episcopal priest and longtime friend.
“I love you,” Hansen said as Cook was led out of the courtroom.
Siting beside Hansen was the Right Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, appointed assistant bishop of the Diocese of Maryland after Cook resigned. Knudsen also covered her face with her hands.
Those Who Did Stop
Family members of Tom Palermo, the 41-year-old software engineer who Cook killed when her car plowed into him on a North Baltimore bike lane, expressed relief at Doory’s decision.
Their statement was delivered outside the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse by Rachel Rock Palermo, Tom Palermo’s widow and the mother of their two children.
“Today I want to remember not only Tom, but the people who stopped and tried to help my husband on the day he was killed,” Palermo said.
She mentioned the students from Boys Latin School of Maryland who stopped when they saw the fallen bicyclist on the side of Roland Avenue, cyclist Moncure Lyon who gave chase on his bicycle and others, including “a deliveryman who called 911.”
“It brings me some peace to know that Tom was not alone,” she said. “And, lastly, for those who have lost a loved one and for whom the case is still unsolved, my heart is with you.”
Drunk and Texting
The hit-and-run took place three months after Cook had been named Bishop Suffragan, the No. 2 position in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
• A spiritual leader’s fall from grace (1/27/15)
She was severely intoxicated and texting when her car plowed into Palermo during the daylight hours of December 27, 2014.
Prosecutors said Cook left Palermo, severely injured but alive, in the street, then returned about 30 minutes later after a small crowd had gathered.
Not Her First DUI
As The Brew first reported, this was not her first drunk driving arrest.
In 2010, while Canon Ordinary for the church’s Easton Diocese, Cook was arrested on multiple DUI and drug possession charges.
In the Palermo case, she was sentenced to seven years in prison after she pleaded guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, driving under the influence and texting while driving.
Since then, Cook’s sentence was reduced by two years as a result of “good time” credits that she accumulated at the Maryland Correctional Institution.
This reduction put her release date at August 6, 2019 rather than October 27, 2022.
The ex-bishop today asked the court for an additional reduction in prison time by changing the sentences for two of her four convictions from consecutive to concurrent.
If Judge Doory had granted the request, Cook would have essentially become eligible for release today.
Earlier Attempts at Release
The request was not Cook’s first attempt to reduce the amount of time she spent behind bars.
Last year, Cook sought parole and was denied after Parole Board officials said she showed little remorse when appearing before them.
Last May, she asked for home detention, but again was denied.
Then over the summer, she unsuccessfully sought “work release” status, which would have allowed her to leave prison during the day.
In arguing for sentence modification, Cook’s lawyers cited her participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, the prison Toastmaster’s Club, and the Sober October program she started for fellow inmates.
The women’s prison in Jessup is “maximum security,” attorney David Irwin said. “It’s hard time. There are strip searches before and after visits.”
He criticized as “lore” and a false “narrative” the idea that Cook was not contrite at her parole hearing last year. (The Parole Commission chairman, who was not present at the hearing, had told reporters afterwards that Cook had shown a lack of remorse.)
“I regret not writing that op-ed” to counter the Parole Commission chairman’s claim, said Cook’s other attorney, Hunter L. Pruette.
Irwin read a letter Cook had written to Rachel Palermo that was on file with the Parole Board at the time.
“I am sorry, deeply sorry,” it said in part. “On holidays, especially Father’s Day, I think of you.”
Cook: “I am so sorry”
In person today, Cook had another chance. Addressing a courtroom filled with spectators, including Rachel Palermo and other family members and friends, Cook said:
“Your honor, I am so sorry for the pain and the loss that I have caused. There really are no words,” she said.
“I owe a debt that I cannot pay, and it haunts me. I believe that God’s call on my life now is very simple – to work the program that keeps my sobriety strong and to help other women find freedom from the grip of addiction. That’s the only thing that I’m made to do. It’s the only offering that I can ever make. To use my experience to help prevent future tragedy.”