Trial of former bishop Heather Cook postponed as attorney considers a plea
Former Episcopal bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, charged in the December drunken-driving death of a popular bicyclist in Baltimore, doesn’t want to go through a “contested trial,” her attorney said Thursday.
“We would hope that we could resolve the case without trial for everyone’s sake,” including the family of 41-year-old bicyclist Thomas Palermo, David Irwin said outside Baltimore Circuit Court.
Irwin’s comments, which came shortly after a brief court proceeding in which Cook waived her right to a speedy trial and accepted a postponement until Sept. 9, were the first indication that Cook is considering accepting culpability in the case through a plea deal.
Irwin said he has made the “earliest of plea considerations,” but has only spoken “very, very briefly” with prosecutors on the matter.
Cook, 58, has pleaded not guilty to all 13 counts against her, including automobile manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of an accident.
If convicted of all charges, Cook could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. She is free on $2.5 million bail.
A plea agreement could allow Cook to serve a lighter sentence on some but not all of the charges, depending on how the state and her attorneys negotiate the deal.
The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office said it “does not comment on open cases,” but noted the postponement came at the request of Cook’s attorneys.
Cook, who had been the second-highest ranking Episcopal leader in Maryland, did not speak to the media after the court proceeding, on the advice of counsel, Irwin said.
Prosecutors allege that Cook, 58, was driving drunk and texting when she left a traffic lane on Roland Avenue in Roland Park on Dec. 27, entered a bike lane Palermo was traveling in and struck him, causing his death.
Palermo, a senior Johns Hopkins Hospital software engineer and a bike frame builder, is survived by his wife, Rachel Palermo; 6-year-old daughter, Sadie; and 4-year-old son, Sam.
Alisa Rock, Rachel Palermo’s sister, sat silently in the ornate courtroom Thursday watching the brief proceeding, in which Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard spoke at her bench with attorneys for both sides before advising Cook of her right to a speedy trial and then accepting the postponement.
Outside the courthouse afterward, Rock said the family had been told the case would be postponed but still found it disappointing.
She also said the family remains committed to seeing that Cook is held accountable for Palermo’s death. “We will continue to be here for as long as it takes to get justice.”
Rock declined to comment on Cook’s desire to avoid a trial and the possibility of a plea agreement in the case.
Cook’s blood-alcohol level was 0.22 percent after the accident, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland, the state’s attorney’s office has said. Cook continues to receive treatment for alcohol abuse, which she began after the accident, Irwin said.
She has resigned from her post with the Episcopal Church, and her clergy credentials have been revoked.
After Irwin spoke with reporters outside the courthouse, Cook walked to the corner and got into a U-Haul van driven by another man.
Irwin said Cook had rented the U-Haul to clear out her rented Baltimore apartment and her church office, and was headed back to her home on the Eastern Shore.