Todd Oppenheim, an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, voices what many have been saying around Baltimore:
Palermo died 10 days ago and still no charges have been filed by the State’s Attorney’s Office against the driver of the vehicle that hit him. Why? Based on my experience as an attorney in the Public Defender’s Office for 10 years, I believe one key factor is at work.
Heather Elizabeth Cook, who drove into Palermo and fled as he lay dying, is a member of the upper tier of Baltimore’s socioeconomic ladder as the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
If one of my clients, who are mostly African-American men, hit Palermo, charges would have been immediately filed against them. This would have been done at the scene by police without a formal arrest – or at the jail if the police took them in and prosecutors looked at the (still publicly unreleased) police report about the incident.
A client of mine would not have been able to go home that evening like Bishop Cook did. While I understand that the police investigation is still on-going, several reliable witnesses reported seeing the bishop leave the scene.
The badly crushed windshield of Bishop Cook’s car was more evidence of her involvement in the crash. And even her own church released a statement, first published by The Brew, identifying her as the driver, confirming that she left the crash scene at first, shirking her responsibility, before returning. The statement even noted that her actions “could result in criminal charges.”
Prior Arrest Record
Right now, especially given her prior DUI arrest in Caroline County, Bishop Cook should be facing charges of failing to remain at the scene of an accident causing death. This is a very serious charge. A hit-and-run with a fatality is a felony offense that carries 10 years of jail time in Maryland.
Instead, she remains free and “lawyered up” with a veteran Towson attorney who has represented many high-profile clients for a substantial fee. My clients can’t afford an attorney of their choice, and they certainly never get the opportunity to preemptively hire an attorney.
The state will likely work with her lawyer to prearrange a “turn-in” or “walk-through” booking whenever she is charged in order to protect her image (and that of the church).
The general prediction around town is that a possible ten-year sentence will turn into community service, at most, and that the Episcopal Diocese will settle with Palermo’s family for a substantial sum under a confidentiality agreement. A criminal or civil trial might raise even more embarrassing questions about the life of the bishop and the workings of the Episcopal Diocese.