Judge postpones start of Heather Cook’s homicide trial

June 3, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] A Baltimore judge June 4 postponed until September former Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook’s criminal trial.

Cook’s trial was scheduled to start that day in Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Wanda Heard’s courtroom. She stands accused of 13 charges for allegedly causing the Dec. 27, 2014, car-bicycle accident in suburban Baltimore that killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital who also built custom bike frames. She is charged with 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.

David Irwin, Cook’s attorney, asked for the postponement, and Cook told the judge during a brief court appearance that she waived her right to a speedy trial, the Associated Press reported. The trial is now set for Sept. 9.

“We would hope that we could resolve the case without trial for everybody’s sake, most importantly the Palermo family’s sake,” Irwin told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing. “To go through the trauma of a trial, my client certainly doesn’t want to have to put them through that.”

Irwin also said he had made the “earliest of plea considerations” but had spoken only “very, very briefly” with prosecutors on the matter, according to the Baltimore Sun.

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 allegedly causing the Dec. 27 car-bicycle accident.

Five of the charges listed in the indictment by a Baltimore City grand jury come in addition to those Cook had faced since being charged Jan. 9 with four criminal offenses and four traffic violations.

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 appeared in court on the charges for the first time April 2 during an arraignment in Baltimore Circuit Court. Her acceptance at that time of a June 4 trial date meant that she essentially had pleaded not guilty to the 13 charges.

Cook faces 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, remains in treatment for her issues with alcohol, according to her attorney. She has been living in a drug and alcohol treatment facility since soon after the accident.

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

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