PADUCAH, Ky. — A Kentucky man who killed three students and wounded five more in a school shooting 25 years ago will go before the state parole board on Tuesday in a high-stakes hearing that could see him released or denied the chance to ever leave prison.
Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on Dec. 1, 1997, when he fired a stolen pistol at 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 was given the maximum sentence possible at the time for someone his age — life in prison but with the possibility of parole. A quarter century later, in the shadow of Uvalde and in a nation disgusted by the carnage of mass shootings, Carneal, now 39, will try to convince the parole board he deserves to be freed.
His parole hearing began Monday with testimony from those injured and close family of those killed, several 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 release him. What if he stops taking his medication? What if his medication stops working?
“Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe,” she said.
Killed in the shooting were 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 for Carneal to be set free.
“They will forever be a 17 year old, a 14 year old, and a 15 year old — allowed only one full decade of life. A consequence of Michael’s choice,” 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 their mom and tell her Nicole had been shot.
“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said Monday. “For me, it’s not fair for him to be able to roam around with freedom 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 to release him or defer his next opportunity for parole for up to five years. If the two cannot agree on those options, they can send the case to a meeting of the full board next Monday. Only the full board 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 wounded that day, spoke Monday about lying on the floor of the high school lobby, bleeding from his head and believing he was going to die. But he said Carneal was too young to comprehend the full consequences of his actions and should have a chance at supervised release.
“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the child I rode the bus with every day,” he said. “I think of the child I shared a lunch table with in third grade. I think of what he could have become if, on that day, he had it somewhere in him to make a different choice or take a different path.”
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