A victim who was paralyzed for more than half his life after being shot by a fellow student in the 1997 school massacre criticized authorities for not immediately denying him parole after a hearing this week.
Michael Carneal, 39, spoke Tuesday before two members of the Kentucky State Parole Board. He is serving a life sentence for killing three classmates at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, and wounding five others when he was 14.
Missy Jenkins Smith, 40, was one of the injured. Seated in her wheelchair, she gave an emotional victim’s testimony via video before board members a day before Carneal’s appearance. He told the board he was taking three psychiatric medications, but still heard voices and was not “paying attention” to his specific diagnoses.
After watching his testimony, Ms Jenkins Smith was unmoved by his plea and shared in a Facebook post on Tuesday that she “doesn’t think things went well for Michael today”.
“I was surprised the board couldn’t come to a unanimous decision, but I believe the full board will do the right thing next week. I saw no evidence that today, 25 years later, he is any better or that he put much effort into preparing for this hearing, and I think the board saw that as well,” she wrote. “In my opinion, he is functioning and safe in prison, just like us out here. Let it stay that way.”
Ladeidra N. Jones, the board’s president, noted during Carneal’s testimony that parole authorities had received letters from his legal counsel and family, but nothing from the inmate himself. When asked why on Tuesday, he said he thought everything was covered by information sent by others.
Ms Jones noted that his mental health prognosis remained “poor” after decades of treatment and that he continued to experience “paranoid thoughts with violent visual images”.
Carneal acknowledged this and told the board that while he still hears voices, he has learned to control his actions and ask for help. He appeared nervous and jittery during an hour-long interview with Ms. Jones and her fellow board member Larry Brock.
Ms. Jones and fellow board member Larry Brock heard Carneal’s testimony but could not reach a unanimous decision on parole. The case will be considered by the parole board on Monday.
Carneal told the board on Tuesday that he knew right from wrong at the age of 14, but blamed a “combination of factors” for the massacre.
“I heard things and I was extremely suspicious,” he told the board. “And I felt for years, I felt alienated and different, and I think when I started to develop mental health issues, that it affected – and it kind of… made my mental health issues worse, that I spent those years when I felt that way.”
He told the board: “I was 14 at the time and had never experienced anything in my life, really. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do.”
Carneal fatally shot Nicole Hadley, 14; Jessica James, 17; and Kayce Steger, 15. Ms. Jenkins Smith, one of the five injured, considered Carneal a friend and knew him quite well, though she told the board he should remain in prison.
“I want you to think about how long others took care of him,” Missy, now a married mother of two, told the board. “From the age of 14 until he is now 39, he has had no responsibility to look after himself and has been looked after for the last 25 years.
“How could anyone say with confidence that he could do this for the rest of his life?” she asked, before adding: “There are too many ‘What ifs’ – to assume that he would be responsible enough to look after himself and not allow his mental illness to harm anyone again? Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe without being haunted.”
Also Tuesday, Carneal told the board that his sister and parents, with whom he will initially live after each release, are supportive and have promised to take him to any doctor’s appointments. He said he is on three psychiatric medications and will continue his outpatient care if released.
“I think I can do a lot of good out there,” Carneal said, adding that he would really be happy working in fast food or hygiene or whatever. “I think I could fit into the community.” I think I could benefit people as a whole.”
One of his victims, Holan Holm, who was shot in the head by Carneal and still bears a hairline scar, pleaded Monday for the release of his attacker.
“I was still a kid,” said Mr. Holm, who was 14 at the time of the shooting and will turn 40 in December. “Everyone in the lobby of Heath High School that day, including Michael Carneal, were children. It took me 25 years to fully realize how little I knew that day – how much life I hadn’t lived and how far I was from adulthood in my thinking and my capacities.”
Carneal went on to say that he felt responsible for the scourge of mass shootings that followed his actions. Although not the first school shooter, Columbine soon after – in 1999 – entrenched it in crime as a national horror. Carneal said he became suicidal and was hospitalized when he heard the news.
The family of Nicole Hadley, who was fatally shot by Carneal, vehemently argued Monday against his release.
“Not only did he kill Nicole, but he killed Kayce and Jessica and tried to kill five other students,” Chuck Hadley told parole board members. “I believe the killer should never be released from prison and should serve the rest of his life sentence.”
Gwen Hadley added that she “won’t see Nicole achieve her goals, get married, have kids and become an aunt.”
“We as a family miss him at all family events. Nicole will always be missed,” she said.