MIchael Carneal was just 14 years old when he walked into the lobby of his Kentucky high school on the Monday after Thanksgiving in 1997 with a large bag full of guns.
A member of the school band and a victim of bullying, Carneal wandered into the lobby that morning, then put on earplugs, picked up a smuggled gun and opened fire at a prayer group meeting before class.
He killed three students and injured five others, including some who considered him a friend. The teenager was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
A quarter of a century later, that day has arrived, and it’s a rare occasion.
Few fatal school shooters have reached this point. They often kill themselves, are killed by law enforcement during the incident, or are sentenced to life without parole. Notably, the Carneal massacre took place in 1997, even before the Columbine shootings shocked the world less than two years later, cementing school shootings as a feared but often talked about part of the US vernacular.
A woman who killed two and injured nine in 1979 received the same life sentence as Carneal, with the possibility of parole in 25 years. She was denied it six times.
Earlier this week, Carneal’s victims and their relatives spoke before two members of the Kentucky State Parole Board. all but one supported his continued imprisonment. The shooter gave his own testimony the next day, but members were unable to reach a unanimous decision.
Next week, the full state parole board will consider Carneal’s case. They have only three options: let him out, keep him in prison, or delay the release decision for years. There is no option to transfer Carneal to a mental facility instead of prison.
But Carneal himself on Tuesday told the two board members that, despite 25 years of therapy and a course of three psychiatric medications, he still hears voices. He appeared agitated and nervous during his testimony before President Ladeidra N. Jones and board member Larry Brock.
“I know now that it’s not something I should do, and I’m able to not do it and rationalize that it’s not something I should do — and what I’m hearing is not true,” she said.
Even at 14, Carneal said he knew right from wrong, but blamed the massacre on a “combination of factors.”
“I was hearing things and I was extremely suspicious,” he told the board. “And I felt for years, feeling alienated and different, and I think when I started to develop mental health issues, that fueled — and kind of … made my mental health issues worse, that I spent those years feeling that way.
“And it got to the point where I was hearing things in my head, doing certain things, and I did them. I wasn’t strong enough or thinking straight enough to evaluate what I was being told to do, and I just found myself doing it.”
Here’s what Carneal did: He stole guns and ammunition from his father and a neighbor and disguised them as a class project when his sister drove him to school on Dec. 1, 1997. He walked into the lobby of Heath High School, where students chatted with movement after Thanksgiving and some would gather for a voluntary prayer group before classes.
Carneal had rifles with him, but did not use them. Instead, he opened fire with a 22-gauge semi-automatic pistol at around 7.45am. He shot Nicole Hadley, 14, in the forehead and then fatally shot Jessica James, 17. and Kayce Steger, 15, also. Carneal injured five other people, including Missy Jenkins Smith, who has since been paralyzed from the chest down.
Before that day, several of his victims had considered him their friend. Carneal admitted he liked some of his victims while testifying Tuesday before the two board members.
Jessica James was “always a leader, a positive leader in the band,” she said, known for “helping the younger guys come out.” He killed her.
Carneal killed and injured eight people before being approached by the principal, Bill Bond, who took him back to the school offices to wait for the police. He faced charges of murder, attempted murder and burglary and pleaded guilty, focusing his defense on mental illness and intimidation.
Missy Jenkins Smith, his wheelchair-bound partner from that day, was quite friendly with Carneal and admits Heath High School “had a serious problem with bullying.”
Before filming, he said, “there were times when [Carneal] he can do something – and I always thought he was funny – but there were some people who, you know, would treat him like he was, you know, annoying or whatever he might be… that’s how he dealt with it, but that’s not ‘I mean I give him an excuse.”
He says he remembers being slightly jealous, actually, of how Carneal seemed able to overcome bullying — until the day he unleashed a bloodbath in the high school hallway before he stopped shooting.
He was the last person he thought would be responsible for such horror on a day that started so normally. Missy was in a hurry to leave the house that morning so her older sister wouldn’t leave for school without her. to this day, she regrets not telling her parents she loved them as she said goodbye. She would face her own mortality moments later.
After arriving at school, she and Maddy were in the hallway when the announcement was made for the daily prayer circle, as students gathered before class to reflect and pray about anything that might be on their minds.
That’s when he heard what sounded like firecrackers. She saw Nicole get shot and, she thinks, went into shock – just as a bullet hit her too.
“I honestly don’t think it was after the prayer circle,” Missy said The independent. “But he was after a large group of people.”
Ms Jenkins Smith visited Carneal in prison with her twin Mandy – who was present at the shooting and tried to shield her sister – ten years after the incident. She then wrote books and became a lawyer, and her testimony to the Kentucky parole board on Monday was tumultuous.
“I want you to think about how long other people have been taking care of him,” Missy, now a married mother of two, told the board. “From the age of 14 until he was 39, he had no responsibility to look after himself and has been looked after for the last 25 years.
“How could anyone say with confidence that they could do this for the rest of their lives?” he asked, adding: “What if the stressors in this new world start to weigh on him – he has trouble getting a job after being jailed for murder or attempted murder, meeting people who know who he is and what he’s done?” How sure are we that he could handle this new world that has changed around him? What if these problems affect him so emotionally that he chooses not to take his medication? What if it affects him emotionally enough that his meds no longer help?
“There are too many ‘what ifs’ – to assume that he would be responsible enough to take care of himself and not let his mental illness cause him to hurt anyone again? Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe without being haunted,” he continued.
Her sentiments were echoed by Nicole Hadley’s parents, brother and sister, but Hollan Holm, who was shot in the head by Carneal and still bears the scar in his hairline, argued for the gunman’s release.
“I was still a kid,” said Mr. Holm, who was 14 at the time of the shooting and will turn 40 in December.
“Everyone in the Heath High School lobby that day, including Michael Carneal, were kids. It took me 25 years to fully appreciate how little I knew that day – how much life I hadn’t lived and how far from adulthood I was in my thinking and capabilities. I am a different person today than I was that day. From that day I left to start a family and have a career.”
However, Mr Holm did not shed light on the consequences of Carneal’s actions.
“I still have a hard time being around crowds of people,” she said. “I get anxious when I’m sitting in a restaurant with my back to the door when a series of small fireworks or balloons bursting approaches this deliberate pattern of gunfire from that morning. I can feel the color draining from my face in panic.”
During Carneal’s appearance before parole board members on Tuesday, he said he was sorry for his crimes, but Ms. Jones pointed out that, from medical records, the inmate’s prognosis remained “poor” after decades of treatment. He continued to experience “paranoid thoughts with violent visual images.”
Ms Jones also noted that Carneal’s family and legal team had sent letters to the board about his appeal and release plan, but had received nothing from the inmate himself, who appeared ill-equipped to handle the hearing. what he was waiting for. more than half of his life. He also told board members that he “doesn’t care” about his mental health diagnoses, only doctors’ orders.
Despite this, and his medication, he admitted that voices were telling him to do things just a few days earlier.
Watching his testimony, Ms. Jenkins Smith was not swayed by his appeal, sharing in a Facebook post on Tuesday that she did not “think things went well for Michael today.”
“I was surprised the board could not come to a unanimous decision, but I believe the full board will do the right thing next week. I saw no evidence that he is better today, 25 years later, or that he put much effort into preparing for this hearing, and I think the board saw that as well,” he wrote. “From my perspective, he’s functioning and safe in prison, just like us out here. Let’s keep it that way.”