Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman in 1997 when he fired a stolen pistol at a before-school prayer group in the lobby of Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky. He received a life sentence with the opportunity for parole after 25 years, the maximum allowed at the time for someone his age.
The hearing that began on Monday is his first opportunity for parole and could also be his last. The parole board has discretion to release him, to defer the decision, or order him to spend the rest of his life in prison without further hope of release.
Monday was dedicated to testimony from the injured and the close relatives of those who were killed in a shooting that still reverberates in this small community, where everyone seems to have a connection to the tragedy and several of the victims considered Carneal, now 39, a friend.
Gwen Hadley, mother of Nicole Hadley, who was 14 when she was murdered on Dec. 1, 1997, expressed a sentiment that was often repeated on Monday, referring to Carneal only as “the shooter.”
“We — the families, the survivors, and people that were at the school, and the whole community — were given a life sentence by the shooter and didn’t have the opportunity to get a second chance, a reduced sentence,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “The life sentence the shooter has given us — I have made the choice not to be angry and to find joy in life. But I still really miss my daughter. And I don’t like that I don’t get to see her.”
Nicole’s sister, Christina Hadley Ellegood, just a year older than Nicole, was in school at the time of the shooting and found her sister in the lobby with a bullet hole in her head. She does not believe Carneal shot at random that day, she said. Nicole was the first person killed and she had recently turned Carneal down for a date.
“Michael was not a kid who did not have friends, as he’s led people to believe,” she said. “Nicole did not agree with how Michael treated people and the things that he did, but because she was so kindhearted, she was friends with him.”
Although Ellegood acknowledged that a child of 14 years old doesn’t have a fully developed brain and may not fully understand the consequences of his actions, she said, “I believe that Michael knew what he was doing the day of the shooting. … He fired eight shots and hit eight different people, which in my eyes is a very difficult task.”
Also killed that day were 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger.
Hollan Holm, who was wounded that day, recalled lying on the floor of the high school lobby, bleeding from his head and believing he was going to die. “Almost 25 years later, I still have trouble being in crowds of people,” he said. “I get agitated and scan for sources of danger and exit routes. I get anxious when I am seated in a restaurant with my back to the door.”
But Holm also remembers Carneal as a kid he rode the bus with every day and who he ate lunch with every day in third grade. Now that he is 40, he realizes just how immature they all were at 14, Holm said.
“I have to think that after 25 years, he’s a different person than he was that day, as we are all different people today than we were 25 years ago,” Holm said, adding that he would support supervised release if mental health experts think Carneal can be successful outside of prison.
Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal’s bullets and uses a wheelchair, said it is too risky to let Carneal out. He has said he was suffering from delusions and paranoia at the time of the shooting, and she worries what would happen if he stopped taking his medications.
Jenkins Smith was in the band with Carneal and had considered him a friend. She even visited him in prison once. She has said she has forgiven him, but she does not think it would be fair for him to be set free.
“I could speak for hours about what my life has been like every minute of every day the last quarter century, without the use of my legs,” she said. “I’ve been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole — after living the consequence of Michael Carneal’s decision — to not be able to walk. I will continue to serve out that consequence. Michael’s decision for me will be my entire life.”
On Tuesday, Carneal will make his case for release from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. 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.
The parole hearing, which took place by videoconference, was broadcast on local television in Paducah and on YouTube. There was also a public showing at a local community college where a handful of community members gathered to watch. They included Tommy Fletcher, a teacher who witnessed the aftermath of the shooting, entering the lobby just seconds after it was over.
In an interview after the hearing, Fletcher remembered the pain of that day when he stayed beside one of the students who died, but also the resilience of his community. On Dec. 2, 1997, school was open and students gathered for their prayer circle in the same lobby where their classmates had been shot the previous day.
“It was so empowering to see how everybody handled it,” Fletcher said. “It really brought us together.”