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Ex-bishop to be released after serving half her prison sentence for bicyclist’s death

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Heather Cook, the former Episcopal bishop who garnered national and international headlines after fatally striking a Baltimore bicyclist with her car while driving drunk two days after Christmas in 2014, will be released from prison this month after serving a little more than half her original sentence.

Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the department withholds prisoners’ release dates for safety reasons, but Cook would be freed “sometime around the middle of May.”

If that’s the case, Cook, 62, will have served just over 3½ years of the seven-year sentence she was given on four criminal charges in connection with the crash that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a software engineer and married father of two, on Dec. 27, 2014.

Cook pleaded guilty to the charges — including automobile manslaughter, drunken driving, texting while driving and leaving the scene of a collision — in 2015.

Cook’s attorney, David Irwin, said his client will be on supervised probation for five years upon her release.

She will learn the precise conditions of that probation at a meeting she is required to have with a probation agent within 24 hours of her release, Irwin said.

Cook, the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland at the time of the crash and the first female bishop in its history, was told at a hearing in November that her release date was expected to be Aug. 6.

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She already had earned sentence reductions for good behavior at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup and was seeking a sentence modification that would have changed two sentences from consecutive to concurrent status, making her eligible for immediate release.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory told the court he believed Cook had shown “substantial rehabilitation” but still denied the motion.

Cook’s release date — already “creeping forward” thanks to diminution credits earned for good behavior, Shields said — was moved to May because once prisoners are within six months of their release date, the rate at which they accumulate those points accelerates.

At that stage, Shields said, they’re given credit for the points they would have earned during the remainder of their sentence.

Cook already had earned a more than a three-year reduction in her original sentence through her extensive work in prison programs. Among her other endeavors, she organized and ran a weekly addiction-recovery meeting for fellow inmates, organized a prison-wide symposium on recovery that featured a lineup of outside speakers and wrote a column on recovery for the prison newsletter.

Shields said Cook has been earning extra credits recently for working in the correctional services department’s mail and distribution center.

Cook had applied for early release several times, including for parole in 2017, for a work-release program in 2018, and for home detention in 2018 and earlier this year. She was denied each time.

Members of the Palermo family have vehemently opposed each of Cook’s efforts to be released early and have harshly criticized her behavior, including the fact that she admittedly left the crash scene and did not return until 30 minutes later.

“Each of Cook’s attempts to reduce her sentence — applications for parole, house arrest, work release, now . . . one for modification — traumatizes my sister and her family anew,” Palermo’s sister-in-law, Alisa Rock, said of Palermo’s widow, Rachel, and the couple’s children in November. “This trauma will affect them all for the rest of their lives, and it’s only appropriate that Heather Cook serve out her original sentence not only for the act of killing Tom, but for leaving him there. Especially for leaving him there, for abdicating responsibility for what she did.”

Leah Rock, also Palermo’s sister-in-law, said she worries Cook is not as far along in dealing with her admitted addiction problems as she may have come to believe in prison, where drugs and alcohol are harder to come by than they are on the outside.

Maryland Episcopal bishop in fatal crash had DUI history, and diocese knew

She also said she considers 3½ years in prison too few to atone for Cook’s crimes and their repercussions.

“[Tom’s] children have a lifetime sentence of growing up without their father, and his friends and family have a lifetime sentence of missing him,” Rock said.

Irwin said even though he has “great empathy” for the Palermo family, he believes Cook’s efforts in prison suggest she is rehabilitated and ready to help others.

“In no way do I minimize the tragedy of the offense which [Cook] committed, but I truly believe it’s time for her to go to a different phase of her life seeking redemption,” he said. “I’m glad she is finally being released. She has been a model prisoner who has done amazing things in the department of corrections to help other women.”

Irwin said he didn’t know exactly what Cook’s plans were upon her release other than complying with the terms of her probation — violations could land her back in prison — and continuing what he called her mission of helping women living behind bars.

“All I know is that she wants to continue to help women who are incarcerated, even when she’s not there,” he said.

Her release comes as the city begins removing a protected cycle track on Roland Avenue installed in 2015 during a road resurfacing project after Palermo’s death. Palermo was killed on Roland, a little farther north than the cycle track extends.

Its removal was one of the last acts of Mayor Catherine Pugh before she went on leave to recover from pneumonia amid the “Healthy Holly” book sale controversy.

The cycle track was a flash point in Roland Park because it narrowed the road, prompting the civic league to call for its removal as well as some residents to seek the removal of a ghost bike memorial for Palermo. But bicycling advocates and some neighbors continue to support the lane, organizing a bike-to-school rally Monday to call on acting mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to reverse Pugh’s decision.

Jed Weeks, policy director for Bikemore, an advocacy group for bicyclists, said the organization has received no updates from the city about the bike lane, but he said he sees the ongoing dispute as an example of questionable community priorities.

“When we have to spend our days defending someone as well loved as Tom Palermo, or defend the rights of children to safely bike to school, it is clear the system is broken,” he said. “Heather Cook’s early release is a product of this broken system.”

— Baltimore Sun