A killer who fatally shot three people in a high school prayer circle in Paducah, Kentucky, a quarter-century ago will make his case for freedom Tuesday.
Michael Carneal’s public defender is asking the Kentucky Parole Board to keep in mind that Carneal was only 14 years old at the time, and that he was suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia as he was grappling with bullying and the transition from middle to high school.
Carneal, now 39, “has committed himself to his mental health treatment, to participating in available educational and vocational programs, and to being a helpful and positive person within the prison,” attorney Alana Meyer wrote this month. “Despite his environment, he has worked hard to better himself and make the best out of his situation.”
Carneal was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and a count of first-degree burglary. Kentucky law requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.
A victims’ hearing was held Monday, and Carneal faced ample pushback to his requested release – from a local prosecutor, victims’ family members and those who survived the December 1, 1997, shooting outside Heath High School. One survivor, whom Carneal shot in the head, told the board he understood why people want to keep him in prison but he would vote to give the convicted murderer another chance.
Carneal will present his case via video conference Tuesday at 8 a.m. (9 a.m ET), after which a two-member panel of the parole board may deny or grant him parole, board chairperson Ladeidra Jones said. If she and board member Larry Brock do not concur on Carneal’s fate, the panel can refer his case to the full board, which convenes September 26. The full board will have the authority to grant or deny parole, or defer his case for up to 10 years, Jones said.
Chuck and Gwen Hadley – whose 14-year-old daughter, Nicole Hadley, was one of the youngsters slain that day – addressed the board first, saying they miss Nicole’s smile, sense of humor and “wonderful hugs.” They want Carneal to spend his life in prison, as he’s never shown remorse or taken responsibility for those he hurt and killed, they told the board.
“We have missed Nicole’s high school graduation, her college graduation, her wedding, her kids, our grandkids and many birthdays and holidays together,” Chuck Hadley told the board.
Christina Hadley Ellegood – who often visits the stone monument memorializing her younger sister, Jessica James and Kayce Steger when she’s having a hard day – found Nicole on the ground after she was shot. She, too, told the board she opposed parole for Carneal, saying Nicole never got a chance to realize her dreams of graduating as a valedictorian, attending the University of North Carolina, working as a WNBA physical therapist, or running a camp for special needs kids.
“Nicole was given a life sentence. Michael (pleaded) to a life sentence,” she said. “I believe that he should have to spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Nicole does not get a second chance. Why should he?”
Survivor Hollan Holm opened his statement recounting the day he was shot: “I was a 14-year-old child. I laid on the floor in the lobby of Heath High School, bled from the side of my head, and believed I was going to die. I said a prayer and readied myself to die.”
It took a dozen staples to repair his head wound, he said, but the mental and emotional scars are more profound. Holm still struggles in crowds, and he’s anxious if he’s seated in a restaurant with his back to the door, he said. He scans the room for danger and exit routes. Fireworks and popping balloons cause panic, and every school shooting forces him to relive the day he was shot, he said.
But when he thinks of Carneal, he said, he thinks of his oldest daughter, 10, and he can’t imagine holding her to the same standard to which he’d hold an adult.
“If the metal health experts think he can be successful on the outside, he should get that chance,” Holm said, saying he understands the anger people feel. “I feel that anger, too, but when I feel that anger, I think about the 14-year-old boy who acted that day and I think of my own children, and I think the man that boy became should get the chance to try to do and be better.”
Missy Jenkins Smith played in the band with Carneal and recalls him being bullied and bullying others before the day she was shot at age 15. From the wheelchair in which Carneal left her, Smith said she could speak for hours about how she struggles without the use of her legs – getting out bed, bathing, reaching cabinets, entering and exiting cars and the “embarrassment of special accommodations that have to be made wherever I go.”
Where she is supposed to be taking care of her 12- and 15-year-old boys, she said, they are instead caring for her. Yet she won’t be able to dance with them at their weddings.
Because Carneal has never cared for himself since the age of 14, she struggles with the medical experts’ conclusion that he can be a productive member of society. What if the stress of life outside the prison is too much? What if he stops taking his medicine?
“Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe without being haunted by what ifs,” Smith said.
In her letter to the parole board, Meyer said her client “has shown deep, genuine remorse and taken responsibility for the shooting.” He has also sought to improve himself, maintaining a treatment program for 20 years, completing his GED and an anger management program, and taking college courses.
Carneal was suffering from the early stages of schizophrenia – which is tough to diagnose in adolescents – at the time of the shooting, the lawyer wrote, and “there has never been a denial that he committed the crimes alleged or that he was profoundly mentally ill at the time the crimes were committed.”
Leaning on US Supreme Court cases indicating juvenile offenders have “greater prospects for reform,” Meyer submitted a re-entry plan showing Carneal would have a great deal of support from his family and medical professionals. Now housed at the Kentucky State Reformatory northeast of Louisville, Carneal will move in with his parents in Cold Spring, across the state from Paducah, if paroled, according to the re-entry plan presented to the parole board.
His parents will help him with finances, employment, housing and transportation to doctor’s appointments and meetings with his parole officer, the plan says, adding he will be referred to mental health programs in Cold Spring and nearby Erlanger.
“Michael is aware that any apology rings hollow but is sincerely sorry for all the physical and emotional pain he has caused his victims and the Heath High School community at large,” the re-entry plan says. “Though there is nothing he can do now to erase that pain, he plans to contribute positively to society in any way he possibly can.”
Prosecutor Daniel Boaz told the board he was county attorney at the time of the shooting, which “shook us to the core, to put it mildly.” The heinous nature of Carneal’s crime permitted authorities to treat him as an adult under Kentucky law, he said, and the state should continue treating him as an adult who should “pay for the consequences of his action.”
Ahead of Monday’s hearing, the commonwealth’s attorney notified the board he would be opposing parole for Carneal, saying the child victims’ families have suffered losses “too vast to be put into words,” according to CNN affiliate WDRB. While imprisoning Carneal for life “may seem like a harsh penalty,” Boaz wrote, “it is only a pittance in comparison to what these families suffer.”