Do you remember a time before school shootings became an everyday fear of American school children? If you do, then you’re approaching middle age or older. The last day of that era was November 30th, 1997 because the very next day, American schools became a battleground in almost every sense of the word.
The very next day on December 1st, a then 14-year-old Michael Carneal shot and killed three other students of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. This act kicked off an era of school shootings in our country that has lasted 25 years. The following March was the school shooting at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, that left five dead. Two months later, Kip Kinkel shot and killed his parents before shooting and killing two at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. And a year later, in April of 1999, Columbine happened. Since then, almost every school shooting has had some kind of Columbine influence. While Columbine was the powder keg, Paducah was the spark that lit the fuse.
At trial, Carneal pleaded guilty but mentally ill. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years. Those 25 years came to an end this past September. At that time, Carneal became the first school shooter to be eligible for parole. All others had either died at the scene of their crimes, or had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
However, before we get to the parole hearings, Carneal had previously tried to withdraw his guilty plea. In 2008, Carneal tried to get his case heard by the Kentucky Supreme Court. Carneal was now claiming that he was hearing voices at the time of the shooting and did not have the mental capacity to enter into a guilty plea. The court denied Carneal’s request, stating there was no outside evidence to corroborate Carneal’s new claims.
In 2009, Carneal filed an appeal on the federal level, still claiming that he had heard voices and was not mentally competent enough to understand his guilty plea. During those proceedings, a clinical psychologist testified Carneal was exaggerating his mental health claims., and Carneal was essentially giving prepared answers to clinical questions that Carneal thought would help his case.
This appeal was denied, not because of any testimony, but because Carneal was past the deadline for appeal. If he had brought this argument before the federal courts prior to 2003, he might have had a better chance of withdrawing his plea. Even that ruling was appealed, with Carneal’s attorney arguing that the judge did not apply the proper judicial standard.
Then in 2013, The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Carneal has been mentally competent since 2004 and could have filed for an appeal at that time. This essentially closed the door on Carneal’s appeals. But Carneal had one last opportunity for freedom.
In September of this year, the Kentucky Parole Board convened to decide if Carneal was eligible for his parole. But it only took 30 minutes for the board to decide that Michael Carneal would never be released from prison as long as he lives. The board’s vote was unanimous, and Carneal will not be eligible for any further parole hearings.
Kentucky Parole Board Chair Ladeidra Jones announced the decision to Carneal over a Zoom call.
“Due to the seriousness of your crime — your crime involved a weapon, you had lives taken, and the seriousness again — it is the decision of the parole board today to allow you to serve out the remainder of your sentence. Thank you, sir.”
I would have added a ‘may God have mercy on your soul’ but I have a flair for the dramatic and I think that only applies to death sentences. But I digress.
Missy Jenkins Smith survived the Heath High School attack, but was left paralyzed. She has forgiven Carneal, but said the ruling was justice for the three girls who lost their lives in the shooting. Ms. Jenkins Smith also hopes the ruling will dissuade other school shooters.
“Shootings are unfortunately something that we have seen that’s unfortunately become common, and that’s very scary,” Jenkins Smith said. “So I feel like this visual will show others that this is what violence can create. This is what a school shooting can do.”
The 39-year-old Carneal is still clinging to the claim that he hears voices and heard them as recently as a few days before the hearing. Although, now, he claims that he has learned to ignore them and hasn’t acted on them in years. How convenient.
However, Carneal did ‘apologize’ for the shooting…
“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.”
As with most school shooter apologies, Carneal is probably more sorry he’s in prison for life than for any trauma he’s caused to his victims and their families.
In a way, not only is Carneal responsible for the deaths of Nicole Hadley, Jessica James, and Kayce Steger, but he’s also been responsible for the hundreds of victims that have died in all the senseless school shootings since then. Spending the rest of his life behind bars is only a modicum of the justice that school shooting victims deserve.
Thanks to John for the tip.
- Board: Carneal to serve out life sentence
- ‘I think that what we got today was justice.’ Heath High School shooting victim reacts after Carneal denied parole
- Unanimous vote denies parole for Heath High School shooter Michael Carneal
- Kentucky school shooter who killed 3 students in 1997 is denied parole and will serve out his life sentence