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Heath High School shooter’s case deferred to full state parole board

Michael Carneal, who committed the 1997 Heath High School shooting, speaks to a parole board Tuesday after nearly 25 years in prison.
Michael Carneal, who committed the 1997 Heath High School shooting, speaks to a parole board Tuesday after nearly 25 years in prison.

One of the nation’s first school shooters presented his case to a parole board in far western Kentucky Tuesday.

Michael Carneal — who committed the 1997 Heath High School shooting — is up for parole in November after serving nearly 25 years in prison. The two-person parole board failed to reach a unanimous decision and deferred the case to the full Kentucky Parole Board. This followed a hearing earlier in the week where some of the victims of the shooting gave their statements regarding his possible parole.

Carneal shot and killed three of his fellow classmates — Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger — and wounded five others — Shelley Schaberg, Melissa "Missy" Jenkins Smith, Kelly Hard Alsip, Hollan Holm and Craig Keene. He accepted a guilty plea and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 1998 for three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and a count of first-degree burglary. State law in Kentucky requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.

Kentucky Parole Board chair Ladeirdre N. Jones and Larry Brock made up the panel. The pair asked Carneal questions about the shooting and circumstances surrounding it, his time in prison, his mental health and his plans were he to be granted parole.

He recounted stealing guns and bullets from a neighbors garage prior to the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting and the day of the shooting.

“I don't remember firing the gun or how many times I fired it, but the next thing I remember is people laying on the ground,” he said.

He also said that he wasn’t targeting the prayer circle in the lobby of Heath High School that morning.

“I wasn't targeting anybody. No one was targeted. It was just a crowd of people that was there. And I was there in the lobby.”

Carneal said he knew right from wrong when he was 14, but that wasn’t what ultimately made him act.

“It's not justified, not justified at all. There's no no excuse for it at all. And the reason it happened was like a combination of factors in my life. And when I look at it now it's because I was a coward,” he said. “I was 14 at the time and I had not experienced anything in life really. I didn't know exactly the effect of what I would do. I didn't know what that would actually mean.

“I didn't know the hurt and the pain it would cause people. I was ignorant to that.”

Carneal says his mental illness and his age were contributing factors to the crime. He says he was “hearing things” and was “extremely hyper-suspicious.”

“I had felt for years … alienated and different. And I think that when I started to develop mental health problems that it fit into that, and it kind of made my mental health problems worse,” he said. “It got to the point where I was hearing things in my mind to do certain things. I was doing them. I wasn't strong enough, or I wasn't thinking properly enough to evaluate what I was being told to do. And I just found myself doing it.”

He recalled “voices” telling him to shoot himself and said that one of these “voices” told him to do something on the day of the shooting.

“There's no justification, or excuse for what I did. I'm offering an explanation. I realized that there's no excuse for what I did,” he said. “I didn't realize the extent of the emotional pain it would cause people. It didn't seem as real to me then as it does now because now I realize. I’m able to see it.”

Carneal said he continues to hear “voices,” which can allude to violent visual imagery, even with the medication and treatment he’s been receiving, having most recently heard them a “couple of days” before the parole hearing.

Carneal's public defender has said he was suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia as he was grappling with bullying and the transition from middle to high school.

The parole board noted that Carneal had gotten into a few fights during his imprisonment, but has a “clear” conduct record over the last nine years.

He says that, if granted parole, he hopes to live with parents before becoming more independent, but one of the most crucial things for his reentry into society would be “maintaining mental health care and counseling.”

“I've had 25 years to prepare for today and it still doesn't seem like it's happening. I've been talking to my parents a lot about it. I recently reconnected with my sister,” he said. “I've had a social worker … that's helped me get everything together. I'm doing the best I can for this parole hearing, putting my best foot forward.

“I think I can do a lot of good out there. I think I can benefit the Commonwealth. I think I can benefit people as a whole.”

Carneal said he thinks the McCracken County community views him as “a monster” but that he wanted to apologize to his victims, their families, his friends and the wider community.

“I'm sorry for what I did. I know it's not gonna change anything,” he said. “It's not gonna make anything better, but I want them to know that. I am sorry for what I did.”

The full Kentucky Parole Board will hear Carneal’s case this coming Monday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 CST. If the board rejects his parole, it could order him to serve the rest of his life sentence.

The parole hearing can be viewed below:

Carneal Parole Hearing Day 2

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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