Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

Maryland 's first female Episcopal bishop, charged in the December fatal hit-and-run of a bicyclist, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter on Thursday.

Bishop Heather Cook is accused of striking and killing Baltimore cyclist Thomas Palermo, 41, with her station wagon while she was inebriated and texting two days after Christmas last year. Cook’s blood-alcohol content was 0.22 — nearly three times the legal limit — according to NBC affiliate WBAL.

Cook, 58, fled the scene before returning approximately half an hour later, according to a statement released by the Episcopal Church of Maryland in February. Palermo was taken to the hospital, where he later died of his injuries.

The bishop, once the second-highest ranking member of the diocese, is now facing more than a dozen charges, including vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.

Cook appeared in Baltimore City Circuit Court early Thursday and pleaded not guilty by default, her lawyer said. The trial was set to start on June 4.

"By inference that we got a trial date, that in essence is a not guilty plea at this time," attorney David Irwin told NBC News. "There’s always a chance between now and then that it could be resolved."

"It' a horrible situation — everybody understands that," he added.

During the brief court proceeding, the Palermo family sat right behind Cook, WBAL reported.

"We know this is the first step in a long process, so we are looking forward to having this resolved and to see justice," Alisa Rock, Palermo's sister-in-law, said in a statement outside the courthouse.

Cook was immediately placed on administrative leave following the incident, according to the diocese, and has requested that she resign.

Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton didn't believe the incident was a true "hit-and-run," saying in an email obtained by NBC News in December: "Bishop Cook did leave the scene initially, but returned after about 20 minutes to take responsibility for her actions."

The bishop has been free on $2.5 million bail and had entered an alcohol rehab program, according to the diocese. She was previously arrested on DUI charges in 2010.


— Daniella Silva