BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Bishop Heather Cook’s jail sentence for drunk driving put a spotlight on how those cares are treated in the courts. Are the laws—and the judges—too lenient? Or are high-profile cases changing enforcement?
Investigator Mike Hellgren has more.
Many are outraged at the sentence of former Bishop Heather Cook. How could the religious leader get seven years behind bars with the option of being paroled earlier? Cook was drunk—almost three times the legal limit—and texting when she hit father of two Thomas Palermo as he rode his bicycle. She fled the scene, leaving him to die.
She was also a repeat offender.
“It isn’t fair, and I would say welcome to the club,” said Donna Beck.
Beck’s been in the club since 1982, when a drunk driver hit her. She was pregnant at the time and headed to her mother’s funeral.
“It just rocks your whole world and a lot of times destroys your whole world,” she said.
Then, 23 years later, a drunk driver killed her daughter’s best friend, Amanda Moore.
“The young man who hit me was really sentenced for another crime, rather than hitting two pregnant women,” Beck said. “The man who hit Amanda got five months—five months—in jail. He was a repeat offender.”
Many times, victims’ families never see the offenders carted off to jail, like Heather Cook.
In another high-profile case, Olympian Michael Phelps never served jail time, despite being caught driving drunk twice.
“Many families are really shocked by what can happen to the offender and what can’t,” Beck said. “We’re at the mercy of the laws of the state and in Maryland particularly, very lax laws.”
Baltimore’s state’s attorney’s office notes in the Cook case, the judge actually went above sentencing guidelines. They’re pushing the legislature to increasing manslaughter penalties from 10 to 15 years.
“Heather Cook’s case highlights the need for increased penalties when it comes to drunk driving fatalities, and that’s what we’re going to continue to push for in Annapolis next year,” said Rochelle Ritchie.
For now, Beck hopes judges know the consequences of their decisions.
“Your children are out there with the Heather Cooks of the world, who are driving with a loaded car to kill them,” she said.
A judge sentenced Cook to supervised probation after her 2010 drunk driving offense, when her blood alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.