Kentucky school shooter denied parole 25 years later, to spend rest of life in prison

Kentucky Parole Board orders Michael Carneal imprisoned for life

The Kentucky Parole Board on Monday ordered the man who, at age 14, opened fire on classmates in a 1997 school shooting to spend the rest of his life in prison, denying his request for parole 25 years later. 

Michael Carneal, now 39, told parole board members last week that he would live with his parents and continue his mental health treatment if they agreed to release him. 

He admitted that he still hears voices like the ones that told him to steal a neighbor’s pistol and fire it into a prayer circle in the crowded lobby of Heath High School, located in West Paducah, in December 1997. However, Carneal said that with therapy and medication, he has learned to control his behavior.

Those killed were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Five more were injured, including Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.

KENTUCKY SCHOOL SHOOTER, UP FOR PAROLE AFTER 25 YEARS, SAYS HE STILL HEARS VOICES 

This screenshot from a Zoom video hearing shows Michael Carneal on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022 at Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky.

This screenshot from a Zoom video hearing shows Michael Carneal on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022 at Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, Ky. (Kentucky Parole Board via AP)

The board, meeting in Frankfort, voted 7-0 to deny parole after deliberating in private for about 30 minutes. Carneal watched the vote over Zoom from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. 

He sat hunched in a small chair as Kentucky Parole Board Chair Ladeidra Jones asked each member for their vote. Jones then told Carneal that "due to the seriousness of your crime," he would serve out his life sentence in prison. Carneal said only, "Yes, ma’am" and quickly left. 

Members of the public watch testimony during the zoom broadcast of the Michael Carneal parole hearing at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Ky., Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. 

Members of the public watch testimony during the zoom broadcast of the Michael Carneal parole hearing at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Ky., Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.  (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The Courier Journal reported that the mass school shooting was one of the first in modern U.S. history. The Heath High School bloodshed came just 17 months before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 more at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Jenkins Smith, who had considered Carneal a friend before she was paralyzed by one of his bullets, said she couldn't sleep Sunday night because she was so anxious about the decision. She said she was in shock after hearing it. "It’s so hard to believe I don’t have to worry about it again," she told the Associated Press.  "I guess I'll realize it later. It will sink in."

Students arriving at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., embrace an unidentified adult on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1997, after student Michael Carneal opened fire at the school the day before, leaving three students dead and five wounded. 

Students arriving at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., embrace an unidentified adult on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1997, after student Michael Carneal opened fire at the school the day before, leaving three students dead and five wounded.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Jenkins Smith watched the hearing from her home in Kirksey with another victim, Kelly Hard Alsip, and their families. Her oldest son, who is 15, had been worried that if Carneal were released, he would come to their house, she said.

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Jenkins Smith, Alsip, others who were wounded in the shooting, and relatives of those who were killed spoke to the parole board panel last week. Most expressed a wish for Carneal to spend the rest of his life in prison. Carneal told the panel there are days that he believes he deserves to die for what he did, but on other days he thinks he could still do some good in the world.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.