PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky man who killed three students and wounded five others in a school shooting 25 years ago will go before the state parole board Tuesday in a high-stakes hearing that could free or deny him the chance to ever leave prison.
Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on December 1, 1997, when he opened fire with a stolen handgun on a before-school 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 the maximum possible sentence at the time 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 sickened by the carnage of mass shootings, Carneal, now 39, will try to convince the parole board that he deserves to be freed.
His parole hearing began Monday with testimony from the injured and close family of the dead, many of whom had considered Carneal a friend.
Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal’s bullets and uses a wheelchair, said there are too many “what ifs” to free him. What if he stops taking his medication? What if his medicine stops working?
“His continued life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe,” she said.
The shootings killed 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Jenkins Smith said it would be unfair to them and their loved ones to let Carneal go free.
“They will forever be a 17-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old — they will only be allowed one full decade of life. A consequence of Michael’s choice,” he 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 their mom to tell her that Nicole had been shot.
“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said Monday. “To me, it’s not fair that he should be able to roam freely when we live in fear of where he might be.”
A two-person panel of the full parole board is hearing Carneal’s appeal. They have the option of releasing him or deferring his next parole opportunity for up to five years. If the two can’t agree on those options, they can send the case to a full council meeting next Monday. Only full alimony has the power to deny Carneal any chance of parole, forcing him to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
Hollan Holm, who was injured that day, said Monday that he was lying on the floor of the high school’s lobby, bleeding from the head and thinking he was going to die. However, he said Carneal was too young to understand the full consequences of his actions and should be given the opportunity for supervised release.
“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the kid I rode the bus with every day,” he said. “I think about the kid I shared a lunch table with in third grade. I think about what could have happened if, on that day, he had it somewhere inside him to make a different choice or take a different path.”