1997 Kentucky school shooter says he feels responsible for Columbine, other shootings

(NEW YORK) — A Kentucky man currently serving a life sentence for a deadly 1997 school shooting said he feels responsible for school shootings that have happened in the U.S.

On Dec. 1, 1997, then-14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School near Paducah, Kentucky, killing three of his fellow students and injuring another five. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

With 24 years and nine months of his sentence served, Carneal, now 39, is seeking parole in what’s one of the first known instances of a school shooter facing the possibility of leaving prison.

After hearing testimony from Carneal and several victims this week, the two members of the Kentucky parole board were unable to make a unanimous decision on his parole, sending the decision to the full board next week.

During his parole hearing on Tuesday, Carneal, who spoke via Zoom from Kentucky State Reformatory, apologized for his actions and said since his incarceration he has received multiple mental health diagnoses, for which he takes medication.

Carneal said some of the symptoms of his illness include hearing voices, which often encourage him to behave violently. He recounted that he was hearing such voices before the shooting. Asked during the hearing if he still hears those voices, he said “Yes.” He said they told him to throw himself down the stairs as recently as two days ago, though he said he believes he now has his actions under control.

The decades since the Paducah incident have seen the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, including in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year.

When asked about the school shootings that have followed, Carneal said, “I feel responsible for them on some level,” in particular the 1999 shooting at Columbine that killed 12 students and a teacher. He said he felt suicidal after learning about Columbine and had to be hospitalized.

At one point, the parole board members asked Carneal to name his eight victims. He said he considered one of them — 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, whom he killed — a “very good friend.”

“How does that make you feel, that you took the life or injured those eight?” Kentucky Parole Board chairperson Ladeidra Jones asked.

“It makes me feel terrible that I hurt anybody, my friends or not my friends,” he responded.

In testimony from Carneal’s victims and their families during a hearing on Monday, most encouraged the parole board to deny Carneal’s request for parole, saying his actions have caused permanent harm and he was still too much of a risk for the public.

Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of the bullets Carneal fired, said keeping Carneal in prison for life “is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe.” She also spoke about the impact of the injuries she suffered in the shooting.

“I have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after living the consequence of Michael Carneal’s decision, to not be able to walk,” Smith said. “I’m forced to continue with every day getting harder and harder as the years pass during my life sentence. The future, and the fear of it, haunts me.”

But at least one victim, Hollan Holm, said Carneal was an adult being held responsible for the actions of a child, and that having spent two-thirds of his life in prison, deserves a chance to do some good in the community.

The parole board members noted Carneal’s attorney and family had submitted plans of action should his parole be granted, but Carneal did not submit one on his own behalf. Both parole board members appeared skeptical that he had fully thought about his plans to successfully reintegrate into society.

After hearing testimony from Carneal and several victims, the two members of the Kentucky parole board were unable to make a unanimous decision on whether to release him in November or defer his next opportunity for parole for up to five years.

The full board is scheduled to meet on Monday to decide whether Carneal should be released, serve out his full sentence or have another chance to seek parole at a later date for up to 10 years.

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