METERichael Carneal was just 14 years old when he walked into the lobby of his Kentucky high school the Monday after Thanksgiving 1997 with a large bag full of guns.
Carneal, a member of the school’s marching band and a victim of bullying, lounged in the lobby that morning, then put on earplugs, took a smuggled gun and opened fire on a prayer group meeting earlier. of the 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 come and it is a rare circumstance.
Few deadly school shooters have gotten to this point. They often take their own lives, are killed by police during the incident, or are sentenced to life in prison without parole. In particular, the Carneal massacre took place in 1997, even before the images from Columbine shocked the world less than two years later, cementing school shootings as a feared but frequently spoken part of the American vernacular.
A school shooter who killed two and wounded nine in 1979 received the same life sentence as Carneal with parole in 25 years. They have been denied six times.
Earlier this week, Carneal victims and their families spoke before two members of the Kentucky State Board of Parole; all but one advocated his continued imprisonment. The shooter gave his own testimony the next day, but the members were unable to reach a unanimous decision.
Next week, the full state parole board will consider Carneal’s case. They only have three options: let him out, keep him in prison, or defer the parole decision for years. There is no option to transfer Carneal to a psychiatric facility instead of prison.
But Carneal himself told the two board members Tuesday that despite 25 years of treatment and a course of three psychiatric medications, he still hears voices. He seemed restless and nervous during his testimony before President Ladeidra N. Jones and board member Larry Brock.
“Now I know it’s not something I should do, and I can not do it and rationalize that it’s not something I should do, and what I hear is not real,” he 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 hyper-suspicious,” he told the board. “And I had felt for years, feeling alienated and different, and I think when I started developing mental health issues, that kind of fueled that, and it 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 mind, to do certain things, and I was doing them. He wasn’t strong enough or thinking well enough to assess what they were telling me to do, and I just found myself doing it.”
This is what Carneal did: He stole guns and ammunition from his father and a neighbor and disguised it as a class project when his sister drove him to school on December 1, 1997. He walked into the lobby of Heath High School, where the students chatted animatedly. after Thanksgiving and some would gather for a volunteer prayer group before school.
Carneal had rifles with him, but did not use them. Instead, he fired a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol around 7:45 am He shot 14-year-old Nicole Hadley in the forehead, then fatally shot 17-year-old Jessica James; and Kayce Steger, 15, too. Carneal injured five more 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 that he had taken a liking to some of his victims as he testified Tuesday before the two board members.
Jessica James was “always a leader, a positive leader, in the band,” she said, known for “helping young people.” He killed her.
Carneal killed and injured eight people before he was approached by the principal, Bill Bond, who took him back to the school offices to await police. He faced charges of murder, attempted murder and robbery and pleaded guilty, focusing his defense on mental illness and bullying.
Missy Jenkins Smith, his bandmate who has been in a wheelchair ever since, was friendly enough with Carneal and admits that Heath High School “had a serious problem with bullying.”
Before the shooting, he said, “there were times when [Carneal] he could do something, and I always thought that was fun, but there were some people who, you know, would treat him like he was, you know, annoying or whatever… so he dealt with it, but that didn’t mean that give you an excuse at all.
She says she remembers being a little jealous, in fact, at how Carneal seemed able to ignore bullying, right up 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 out so normally. Missy hurried out of the house that morning so her older sister wouldn’t go to school without her; To this day, she regrets not telling her parents that she loved them when she said goodbye to her. She would face her own mortality minutes later.
After arriving at school, she and Mandy were in the hallway when the daily prayer circle announcement was made, as students gathered before class to reflect and pray about anything that might be on their minds.
It was then that he heard what sounded like firecrackers. She watched as Nicole was shot and, she believes, she went into shock, just as a bullet hit her too.
“Honestly, I don’t think he was behind the prayer circle,” Missy said. the independent. “But he was behind a large group of people.”
Mrs. Jenkins Smith visited Carneal in prison with her twin, Mandy, who was present at the shooting and tried to protect her sister, ten years after the incident. She later wrote books and became an advocate, and her testimony before the Kentucky parole board on Monday was jarring.
“I want them to consider how long he’s been cared for by others,” Missy, now married and a mother of two, told the board. “From the age of 14 to the current age of 39, he has had no responsibility to take care of himself and has been cared for for the past 25 years.
“How could anyone confidently say that he could do it for the rest of his life?” he asked, adding, “What if the stressors in this new world start to weigh on him: having trouble finding a job after time in jail for murder or attempted murder, running into people who know who he is him and what did he do? How confident are we that he will be able to handle this new world that has changed around him? What if these problems affect him so emotionally that he decides not to take his medication? What if he affects you emotionally enough that your medications no longer help?
“There are too many ‘What ifs? Assuming he would be responsible enough to take care of himself and not let his mental illness hurt anyone again? Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe without being harassed,” he continued.
Nicole Hadley’s parents, brother and sister echoed their sentiments, but Hollan Holm, who was shot in the head by Carneal and still has the scar on her hairline, pleaded for her attacker’s release.
“I was still a kid,” said Holm, who was 14 at the time of the shooting and will turn 40 in December.
“Everyone in the lobby at Heath High School that day, including Michael Carneal, was a child. It took me 25 years to fully appreciate how little I knew that day: how much of life I hadn’t lived and how far from an adult I was in my thinking and ability. I am a different person today than I was that day. I’ve gone from that day to starting a family and having a career.”
Still, Holm didn’t scoff at the ramifications of Carneal’s actions.
“I still have trouble being in crowds of people,” he said. “I get anxious when I’m sitting in a restaurant with my back to the door, when a series of small fireworks or exploding balloons approximates the deliberate pattern of the shooting that morning. I can feel the color drain from my face in panic.”
During Carneal’s appearance before members of the parole board on Tuesday, he said he was sorry for his crimes, but Ms. Jones noted that according to medical records, the inmate’s prognosis remained “poor” after decades of treatment. . She 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 regarding his guilty plea and plan for his release, but had received nothing from the inmate himself, who seemed ill-equipped to handle the audience I was waiting for. more than half of his life. She also told board members that he doesn’t “pay attention” to his mental health diagnoses, only to the doctors’ instructions.
Despite that, and her medication, she admitted the voices were still telling her to do things as recently as a few days before.
Seeing his testimony, Ms. Jenkins Smith was not swayed by his plea, sharing in a Facebook post on Tuesday that she “didn’t think things were going well for Michael today.”
“I was surprised that the board was unable to reach a unanimous decision, but I am confident that the full board will do the right thing next week. I did not see any evidence that he is any better today, 25 years later, or that he put much effort into preparing for this hearing, and I think the board saw it too,” he wrote. “From my point of view, it is working and safe in prison, and so are we here. Let’s keep it that way.”