Kentucky school gunner Michael Carneal is asking for parole

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman when he took a stolen gun and opened fire in the lobby of his school near Paducah, Kentucky in 1997.

PADUCAH, Kentucky – A Kentucky man who killed three students and wounded five others in one School shooting 25 years ago will have to wait another week to learn his fate at a high-level hearing that could result in his being released or being denied a chance ever to leave prison.

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on December 1, 1997 when he fired a stolen handgun at a preschool prayer group in the lobby of Heath High School near Paducah, Kentucky. School shootings were not yet a depressing part of the national consciousness, and Carneal received what was then the highest possible sentence for someone his age – life in prison with the possibility of parole. A quarter century later, in the shadow of Uvalde and in a nation disgusted by the carnage of the mass shooting, Carneal, now 39, will try to convince the parole board that he deserves to be released.

At a hearing Tuesday, a two-person panel from the Kentucky Parole Board said they are referring his case to the full board, which meets Monday. Only the full board has the authority to order Carneal to serve his full sentence without another chance of parole.

In a video conference at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Carneal told the panel that at the time of the shooting I had in my head what to do certain things, but I should have known that stealing guns … was going to lead to something horrific. He said he received therapy in prison and was on psychiatric medication, but admitted he continued to hear voices. Just a few days ago he heard voices telling him to jump out of the prison stairs.

Parole Board chairperson Ladeidra Jones told Carneal that his inmate file lists his mental health prognosis as “poor” and says that even with psychiatric services, he still has paranoid thoughts with violent imagery.

When asked how the board could be sure they wouldn’t act on those thoughts, he said he’d learned to ignore them and hadn’t acted on them for many years. Carneal said there are days when he believes he deserves to die for what he’s done, but other days he believes he can still do some good in the world even though he doesn’t have any made concrete plans.

“It doesn’t have to be anything grand,” he said. “Every little thing you do affects someone. It could be listening to someone, carrying something. I want to do something in the future that can make a contribution to society.”

Carneal said the shooting was due to a combination of factors that included his sanity and immaturity, but he added that it was “not justified at all”. There is absolutely no excuse for that.”

The shooting killed 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger.

Carneal said he knows all of his victims and bears no grudges against them.

“Nicole was a very good friend,” he said. “Some of them I knew better than others, but it was a small school and a lot of these people were with me. I had been to some of their birthday parties. … I have no negative memories of any of them.”

He ended with an apology.

“I want to say to you and the victims and their friends and families and the whole community that I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I know it won’t change anything or make it better, but I’m sorry for what I did.”

Watching from her home in Kirksey was Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal’s bullets and uses a wheelchair. Her friend Kelly Hard Alsip, who was also wounded that day, and her children and other relatives huddled on a large sofa.

They scoffed when they heard Carneal say he hadn’t aimed at the prayer group, just fired at random. They also reacted in disbelief when he said he heard voices just two days ago.

After the hearing, Jenkins Smith said she doesn’t like having to wait another week to find out what’s going to happen, but “at least he won’t be released.”

She was one of the victims will testify before the parole board on Monday about the effect Carneal’s crimes had on her.

She said there were too many “what if” questions to let him go. What if he stops his medication? What if his medication doesn’t work anymore?

“Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe,” she said.

She also said it would be unfair to the girls he killed and their loved ones if Carneal were released.

“They will forever be a 17-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old – they’re only allowed one full decade of life. A consequence of Michael’s decision,” she said.

Also testifying Monday was Christina Hadley Ellegood, whose younger sister Nicole was killed in the shooting. Ellegood has written about the pain of seeing her sister’s body and having to call her mother to tell her Nicole was shot.

“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said. “To me it’s not fair that he’s free to roam when we live in fear of where he might be.”

The two-member panel of the full parole board has only the option to release him or delay his next opportunity for parole for up to five years. Unable to agree on those options, they sent the case to a full board meeting next Monday.

Hollan Holm, who was wounded that day, spoke Monday about lying on the high school lobby floor, bleeding from his head, and thinking he was going to die. But he said Carneal is too young to understand the full consequences of his actions and should have a chance at a supervised release.

“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the kid I rode on the bus with every day,” he said. “I think of the kid I shared lunch with in third grade. I think about what he could have become if he had been somewhere inside that day to make a different choice or take a different path.” Kentucky school gunner Michael Carneal is asking for parole

Laura Coffey

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