Episcopalian Bishop Faces Criminal Charges In Fatal DWI

On December 27, 2014, Thomas Palermo, a 41 year old software engineer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, was riding his bicycle on a road popular with bicyclists for its wide bike lanes and steep hills. At that same time, Heather Cook, a 58 year old Episcopalian bishop and one of the highest ranking officials in the Maryland Episcopal Diocese, was allegedly operating her motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.22% and texting while driving. The legal limit for intoxication in the State of Maryland, as in New York, is 0.08%.

Ms. Cook apparently veered to the right into the bike line while distracted by texting, and struck Mr. Palermo. According to the police, Bishop Cook then left the scene of the accident, offering no assistance to Mr. Palermo, and returned approximately 30 minutes later accompanied by another church official.

Mr. Palermo died a local hospital shortly after the accident, with survivors including his wife and two young children, ages 4 and 6. Ms. Cook was arrested and charged with criminally negligent manslaughter, driving while impaired and texting, and leaving the scene of a personal injury accident. She was then released on her own recognizance. Considering her significant position with the diocese, it is quite surprising that in 2010, Bishop Cook pled guilty to a DWI charge of operating her motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.27%, well over three times the legal limit of intoxication. She was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine of $300.00. Despite this fact, Cook was still elected to Bishop.

Ironically, in a sermon in 2014, Bishop Cook discussed traffic safety and the consequences of unsafe driving, stating: “My perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn’t like to hold us accountable for consequences…that somehow everybody gets a free pass all the time…it’s up to us to be responsible.” The Palermo case has also gained notoriety for the perception that Bishop Cook received preferential treatment, in that she was not arrested immediately and the police provided only basic details about the accident. A public defender in Baltimore, Todd H. Oppenheim, noted: “If one of my clients, who are mostly African-American men, hit Palermo, charges would have been immediately filed against them.” Often in cases of vehicular homicide, the local police and prosecutors utilize additional time in order to avoid the possibility of the defendant pleading guilty to lesser charges, so this could be another reason for the deliberate nature of the charges against Bishop Cook.

If Bishop Cook were charged in New York with similar crimes, including criminally negligent homicide, she would be facing an E felony with a maximum jail term of 4 years. If she were convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, that is a D felony with a maximum jail sentence of 7 years. Leaving the scene of a personal injury accident in New York is a misdemeanor with a potential jail sentence of up to 1 year.

Contact the Law Office of Mark A. Siesel online or toll free at (914) 428-7386 if you are charged with a DWI, felony DWI, refusal to take a chemical test, or traffic infraction, for a free consultation with an experienced attorney to discuss the charges, your legal rights and options.