Michael Carneal told a parole panel Tuesday that he heard voices 25 years ago telling him to shoot students at a high school in western Kentucky. He said he still hears those voices today.
Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman when he used a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol he had stolen from a neighbor to open fire in Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, as students were gathered for a before-school prayer circle . It was one of the nation’s first school massacres. Carneal, now 39, is one of the only perpetrators to be considered for parole.
Carneal, who pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder, attempted murder and burglary, was sentenced to life, but because of his age, he was entitled to be considered for parole after serving 25 years. He attempted to convince a two-person panel Tuesday that he should be freed.
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His testimony came one day after victims of the shooting and their family members told board members in emotionally wrought testimony that he should serve the rest of his life sentence for killing three girls at Heath High School and wounding five other students.
But the board was unable to reach a unanimous decision. Parole Board Chair Ladeidra Jones told Carneal after his testimony that the two members were referring his case to the full board, which meets on Monday and will decide whether to grant his parole request, defer the decision to a later date, or could order him to serve the rest of life behind bars
Carneal apologizes to victims, says he feels partially responsible for subsequent attacks
Wearing a tan prison uniform, Carneal testified remotely from a hallway of the Kentucky State Reformatory and answered questions about his actions and whether he was a risk to the public.
Carneal admitted that as recently as two days earlier, he heard voices in his head telling him to jump down a set of stairs. But he insisted he was able to resist those voices now and hadn’t acted on them for decades.
Still, board members Ladeidra Jones and Larry Brock expressed strong reservations that it would be safe to release him. Jones noted Carneal had a clear record at the Kentucky State Reformatory for nine years but that a report from mental health officials there said his prognosis was “poor” and he was still experiencing “paranoid thoughts with violent imagery.”
Carneal expressed sympathy for his victims but showed no obvious emotions. Jones made him recite the names of all eight of his victims, and he acknowledged that most were his friends.
He said he was particularly close to Nicole Hadley, a 14-year-old whom he killed.
“She was one of my friends, and I killed her,” he said.
And he said another girl who died, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, let him sit next to her on the bus one day when nobody else would. “I’ll never forget that,” he said.
Carneal said the voices told him to steal a 22 caliber pistol from his neighbor’s garage three days before the shooting, and to pull it out of his backpack and start firing.
“There is no excuse for what I did,” he said. “I am just trying to explain it.”
Asked by Jones how he feels now about killing his friend, he said, “I feel terrible about hurting anyone.”
But pressed by both board members, he admitted he knew right from wrong at age 14, despite his hallucinations.
He said he takes three medications a day for his mental illness – he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic – and would continue to do so if released and placed with his parents, who live in Northern Kentucky. Carneal’s parents have promised to take him in and to ensure that he continues to receive treatment.
“I know I need to receive mental health care,” he said.
Asked if he deserved parole, Carneal said, “I don’t know: Sometimes I think I deserve to be killed.”
Asked what he thinks people in the Paducah community think of him, he said, “That I am a monster.”
“Can you blame them?” Brock asked.
“I understand why people would think that,” he replied.
He said he feels “responsible at some level” when asked about subsequent school shootings and that after the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, he became suicidal and had to be treated at a hospital.
Carneal said he wants to help society and thinks he has something to offer, even if it is just to listen to other people. “I think I can do a lot of good out there,” he said.
Asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, he said, “I would like to say to my victims and their families, I am sorry for what I did.”
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Victims, survivors say Carneal sentenced them to a life of suffering
Survivors and relatives of those killed in the shooting testified remotely Monday before members of the panel. During the shooting, Carneal killed Nicole Hadley, Kayce Steger, and Jessica James, 17, and injured Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed from the chest down, and Hollan Holm, Shelly Schaberg, Kelly Hard Alsip and Craig Keene.
Chuck and Gwen Hadley described the anguish of never being able to see their daughter graduate from high school or college, or celebrate other milestones, like having children or getting married.
“Nicole didn’t get a second chance,” Gwen Hadley said. “The shooter should stay where he is.”
Andrew Hadley, Nicole’s younger brother, said he has suffered from anxiety and depression since his sister was gunned down and struggles to answer when his own daughter, 5, asks when she is going to meet her Aunt Nicole.
Nicole’s sister, Christina Hadley Ellegood, remembered her as a “kindhearted, caring and funny girl who was friends with everybody.” Nicole hoped to graduate as valedictorian, go to the University of North Carolina because she worshiped Michael Jordan, then work in the WNBA nor a physical therapist.
“My world was turned upside down,” Christina Hadley Ellegood said.
Victims testify:Kentucky school shooting survivors say Michael Carneal sentenced them to a life of suffering
Missy Jenkins Smith told the panel Carneal “sentenced me to life in a wheelchair without the possibility of parole.” She said she would never be able to take a walk in the woods with her sons, 12 and 15, or be able to dance at their weddings.
She said if Carneal is released, there are no assurances he could live in the outside world and continue taking his medications.
“There are too many ‘what ifs,'” she said.
The lone witness Monday who supported Carneal’s release – with conditions – was Hollan Holm, whom Carneal shot in the scalp but survived with no permanent physical injuries. Holm mentioned how he still gets anxious in crowds or when he hears fireworks and went through counseling for post-traumatic stress.
But Holm, an attorney, said Carneal has spent two-thirds of his life behind bars and that if mental health professionals think he can survive outside, he should get that chance.
“I know that is not a popular stance,” Holm said.
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Follow Andrew Wolfson on Twitter: @adwolfson.