Heather Cook pleads guilty to automobile manslaughter

September 8, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] Former Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook is due to be sentenced late next month after pleading guilty Sept. 8 to automobile manslaughter and three other criminal charges.

The other charges to which Cook pleaded include driving while intoxicated, texting while driving and failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, according to a spokesperson for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney office.

Prosecutors said during Cook’s court appearance that they would ask for a sentence of 20 years, with all but 10 years suspended, to be followed by five years’ probation. Judge Timothy Doory will sentence Cook on Oct. 27.

Doory said in court that his sentence would not exceed the figure reached in the plea deal but cautioned he could give her less time, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Cook’s trial was scheduled to start in Baltimore City Circuit Court Sept. 9. She was accused of 13 charges for causing the Dec. 27, 2014, car-bicycle accident in suburban Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a 41-year-old father of two and software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built custom bike frames.

The charges included driving the car that struck Palermo while having nearly three times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood system, texting while driving and then leaving the scene of the accident.

Outside the courthouse, David Irwin, Cook’s attorneys, told reporters that the state’s sentencing recommendation “is a very heavy one.”

Irwin said that Cook’s 58 years of “mostly leading a life that everyone would consider a model” is a mitigating factor in terms of the length of her sentence, “but obviously nothing can reverse the tragedy of Dec. 27.”

Also outside the courthouse, Alicia Rock, Palermo’s sister-in-law, said it was time for the community to send a strong message that we will not tolerate drivers who text on their smartphones or drive when they are intoxicated.”

“We hope that, one day, Bishop Cook can truly grasp the enormity of the loss her reckless behavior caused for Tom and my sister, the children, his parents and our community,” Rock said.

On May 1 Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori announced that she and Cook had reached an agreement that deprived her of her status as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church and ended all ecclesiastical disciplinary matters pending against her. That announcement came on the same day that Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton said he had accepted Cook’s resignation from her diocesan post.

A Baltimore grand jury indicted Cook Feb. 4 on 13 counts for causing the Dec. 27 accident.

Five of the charges listed in the indictment by a Baltimore City grand jury came in addition to those Cook had faced since being charged Jan. 9.

The grand jury had added charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol per se (a “per se” DUI charge involves drivers whose blood alcohol limit is above the .08 percent legal limit; such drivers can be charged with drunk driving even if their ability to drive does not appear to be impaired), driving under the impairment of alcohol, texting while driving, reckless driving and negligent driving.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in January that a breathalyzer test administered to Cook after the accident showed she had a blood alcohol content of .22 percent.

The original Jan. 9 criminal charges included manslaughter by vehicle, criminal negligent manslaughter by vehicle, homicide by driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol per se and homicide by driving a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol.

The traffic charges filed on Jan. 9 included failing to remain at an accident resulting in death, failing to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury, using a text-messaging device while driving causing an accident with death or serious injury, and driving under the influence of alcohol. The grand jury added to the two failure-to-stop offenses a charge of failure to stop the vehicle as close as possible to the scene of an accident.

The failing to remain at an accident resulting in serious bodily injury and the failing to remain at an accident resulting in death are both felony charges.

Cook faced a combined maximum penalty of at least 39 years in prison and a $39,000 fine, depending on whether her 2010 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession and subsequent “probation before judgment” sentence is considered a first offense for any sentence she might receive if she were convicted of the charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or driving while under the influence of alcohol per se.

Cook, who is free on $2.5 million bail, entered a drug and alcohol treatment facility soon after the accident. Irwin said Sept. 8 that Cook, who was once canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Easton, is now living on the Eastern Shore and seeing a therapist.

Prompted by Cook’s case, the church’s General Convention this summer passed three resolutions meant to acknowledge the church’s role in the culture of alcohol and drug abuse, adopt a policy on alcohol and other substance misuse and encourage dioceses, congregations, seminaries, schools, young adult ministries, and affiliated institutions to update their policies on the use of alcohol and other substances, and to question ordinands at the very beginning of their discernment process about addiction and substance use in their lives and family systems.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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