BALTIMORE-This past Tuesday, former Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook was sentenced to seven years in prison for killing cyclist Thomas Palermo in a DUI-related accident. Cook was nearly three times over the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit and texting while driving when she struck Palermo two days after Christmas last year.
Tom was a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a father to two young children. He had a side business building bike frames. The day of the accident, Tom and his family had been out hiking at Gunpowder Falls, after which he went on a bike ride to Baltimore.
According to accident lawyer Matthew Davey, “accidents where the driver of a motor vehicle collides with a cyclist can be particularly devastating. Even though cyclists are expected to follow many of the same rules of the road as car and truck drivers, the simple fact is that even a cyclist who is wearing a helmet has almost no protection from a collision when compared to a person driving a vehicle with modern safety features. Thus, we continue to see tragedies like this one.”
After Cook crashed into him, she immediately left the scene, came back, and then left again to take her dog home before turning herself in. At the time of her arrest, her BAC was .22.
“Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision,” said Judge Timothy J. Doory to Cook during the sentencing.
Cook’s lawyer, David Irwin, described her as a good woman struggling without support against her alcohol addiction. She helped grow a York, PA church by attracting many new worshippers and had recently risen to a high position in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Many hoped for a longer sentence than the seven years given, as the charges against Cook could have led to a maximum of 20 years jail time. Alisa Rock, one of Palermo’s sisters-in-law, said, “While no amount of prison time would ever seem sufficient, we feel the court today could have sent a stronger signal that our community takes driving while under the influence and driving while distracted seriously.”
During the sentencing hearing, Tom’s mother said she had questioned why God would take her son until she realized, “God didn’t do this. Heather Cook killed Tom.”
Cook broke down upon hearing this and addressed the family directly.
“I am so sorry for the grief and agony I have caused…This is my fault and I accept complete responsibility.”