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Kentucky man who shot classmates in 1997 imprisoned for life

The Kentucky Parole Board voted Monday to deny parole to 39-year-old Michael Carneal, and ordered him to serve out his full life sentence.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Kentucky man who killed three fellow students and wounded five others when he was 14 years old will have to spend the rest of his life in prison without another opportunity to seek parole, the Kentucky Parole Board voted Monday.

Every member voted to have Michael Carneal, now 39, serve out his life sentence.  

Last Tuesday, a panel from the state Parole Board couldn't reach a unanimous decision, and pushed the choice to the full board. The board could have also chosen to release Carneal or defer his opportunity for parole up to ten years. 

Christina Ellegood, who lost her sister Nicole in the 1997 Heath High School shooting and was also a student at the school, said the delay was frustrating, but worth the result. 

“In my mind because he was 14 at the time, he committed the crime that they wouldn’t consider having him serve out the rest of his sentence," Ellegood said Monday after the vote. “It definitely was worth it, it was hard and left us really wondering what they were thinking.”

Ellegood has spent years waiting for Carneal's parole date. Now that she knows he'll serve out his life sentence, she said she can breathe a sigh of relief. 

“We’ve had this on our shoulders for the last 25 years knowing this day was going to come, so it’s hard to know what to expect in the future," she said. 

The shooting at Heath High was one of the first school massacres in the country. Ellegood hopes the decision from the board will be an example in the years to come.

“This will probably affect other states that have shooters coming up for parole so I’m very thankful for the parole board," she said. “I think this hearing did really matter and it could affect other shooters that are waiting to come up for parole.”

Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal's bullets and uses a wheelchair, said the decision was "justice" finally being served. 

"For the decision he made that morning that sentences all of us to life without parole," Jenkins Smith said. "I knew something good was going to happen, I couldn't imagine they were going to let him go home to his parents." 

Credit: AP
Missy Jenkins Smith poses for a photo at her home on Sept. 9, 2022, in Kirksey, Ky. Smith was paralyzed from the chest down after being shot by Michael Carneal in 1997. Carneal, serving a life sentence, has an upcoming parole hearing. (Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal via AP)

Jenkins Smith spoke during the victim impact hearing last week, and listened in to Carneal's own testimony before the board. She said Carneal seemed unprepared for release.

Last Monday, she was one of several survivors who advocated for him to remain in jail. Only one person advocated for giving him a second chance. 

During last week's hearings, Carneal admitted that he still hears voices like the ones that told him to steal a neighbor's pistol and fire it into the crowded lobby of Heath High School. However, Carneal said that with therapy and medication, he has learned to control his behavior.

He told parole board members that he would live with his parents and continue his mental health treatment if they agreed to release him.

Parole Board Chair Ladeidra Jones earlier told Carneal their "number one charge is to maintain public safety." She informed him that his inmate file listed his mental health prognosis as "poor" and says he experiences "paranoid thoughts with violent visual imagery."

Credit: Ian Lewis, WHAS11 News

In a statement on Monday following the vote, the state parole board said:

The Kentucky Parole Board met on Sept. 26 to determine the parole eligibility for Kentucky state inmate Michael Carneal. The final decision regarding Mr. Carneal’s parole eligibility was determined by majority vote. In accordance with KRS 439.340 (14)(a,b), Mr. Carneal will serve out his sentence.

The Kentucky Parole Board’s decision was made in compliance with Kentucky law and in effort to maintain a delicate balance between public safety, victim rights, reintegration of the offender and recidivism.

The board is prohibited by law to discuss today’s deliberations as they occurred in closed session.

Background

Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman when he opened fire on a before-school prayer circle that met in the lobby each morning. 

He was given the maximum sentence for someone his age at the time, a life sentence with a possibility of parole after 25 years.

The students who were killed in the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting were 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, who Carneal said was a "very good friend" to him.

"I'm sorry for what I did," he said. "I know it's not going to change things or make anything better, but I am sorry for what I did." 

Credit: AP
FILE - Heath High School shooting suspect Michael Carneal is escorted out of the McCracken County Courthouse after his arraignment in Paducah, Ky., Jan. 15, 1998. Carneal was accused of opening fire inside a Kentucky high school, killing three classmates and wounding five others Dec. 1, 1997. In the quarter century that has passed, school shootings have become a depressingly regular occurrence in the U.S. Carneal's parole hearing in September 2022 raises questions about the appropriate punishment for children who commit heinous crimes. Even if they can be rehabilitated, many wonder if it is fair to the victims for them to be released. (Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal via AP)

Andrew Hadley, younger brother to Nicole, told the panel last week that he does not understand why Carneal even has a chance at parole when his victims were "sentenced to a life of pain and suffering."

He told the board how his sister used to drive him to excel both academically and athletically.

"She always wanted to strive to push us to be our best. And we've been missing that every day since she was taken from us," he said. "I'll never be able to touch her again, or hear her talk me through things."

When asked about the shooting by the parole board last week, Carneal attributed it to a combination of factors that included his mental health and immaturity, but added that it was "not justified at all. There's no excuse for it at all."

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