A Kentucky man who killed three students and wounded five in a school shooting 25 years ago told a parole panel on Tuesday he was still hearing voices like the ones that told him to steal a pistol and shoot into a high school lobby in 1997.
The two-person panel hearing Michael Carneal’s testimony deferred a decision until Monday, when the entire state parole board could grant his parole request, defer his next parole decision or determine that he must spend the rest of his life in prison.
Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman when on 1 December 1997 he fired at a prayer group at Heath high school, near Paducah.
Carneal was given the maximum sentence possible at the time for someone his age: life in prison with the possibility of parole. Now 39, Carneal tried to convince the parole panel he deserves to be freed.
The board chair, Ladeidra Jones, told Carneal the two members were referring his case to the full board. Only the full board has the power to order Carneal to serve out his full sentence without another chance at parole.
Speaking from the Kentucky state reformatory in La Grange, Carneal said that at the time of the shooting, “I was hearing in my head to do certain things, but I should have known that stealing guns … was going to lead to something terrible.”
He said he had been receiving therapy and taking medications but said he still hears voices. As recently as a couple of days ago, he said, he heard voices telling him to jump off the stairs.
Jones told Carneal his inmate file lists his mental health prognosis as “poor” and says that even with mental health services, he is still experiencing paranoid thoughts with violent imagery. Asked how the board could be assured that he would not act on those thoughts, Carneal said he has learned to ignore them. He also said there were days when he believes he deserves to die for what he did, but others when he thinks he can still do some good in the world.
“It doesn’t have to be something grand,” he said. “Every little thing you do affects somebody. It could be listening to someone, carrying something. I would like to do something in the future that could contribute to society.”
Carneal attributed the shooting to factors including his mental health and immaturity but said it was “not justified at all. There’s no excuse for it at all”.
Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Carneal said he knew all of his victims.
“Nicole was a very good friend,” he said. “Some of them I knew more than others but it was a small school and a lot of these people were in band with me. I’d went to several of their birthday parties … None of them do I have any negative memories of them.”
He ended with an apology: “I would like to say to you and the victims and their friends and families and the whole community that I’m sorry for what I did. I know it’s not going to change things or make anything better, but I am sorry for what I did.”
Watching from home in Kirksey was Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed in the shooting and uses a wheelchair. Her friend Kelly Hard Alsip, also wounded, and their children and relatives also watched. They scoffed as they heard Carneal say he had not targeted the prayer group. They reacted with disbelief when he said he heard voices two days ago.
Jenkins Smith said she did not like having to wait another week to find out what will happen, but “at least he’s not being released”.
She testified to the parole board panel on Monday that there were too many “what ifs”. 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.
She also said it would be unfair to the girls Carneal killed and their loved ones for Carneal to be released.
“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 on Monday was Christina Hadley Ellegood, whose sister Nicole was killed. Ellegood has written about 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. “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.”
Hollan Holm, who was wounded, spoke on Monday about lying on the floor, bleeding from his head and believing he was going to die. But he said Carneal was too young to comprehend the consequences of his actions and should have a chance at 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.”