Kentucky school shooter seeks parole in high-stakes hearing

PADUCAH, Ky. — A Kentucky man who killed three students and injured five others in a school shooting 25 years ago will appear before the state parole board on Tuesday in a high-stakes hearing that could see him released or denied the possibility of leaving prison.

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on December 1, 1997, when he fired a stolen pistol at a before-school prayer group in the hall of Heath High School near Paducah, Kentucky. School shootings were not yet a depressing part of the national consciousness, and Carneal was sentenced to the maximum possible sentence at the time for someone his age – life in prison but with the possibility of parole . A quarter of a century later, in the shadow of Uvalde and in a nation disgusted by the carnage of the mass shootings, Carneal, now 39, will try to convince the parole board that he deserves to be freed.

His parole hearing began on Monday with testimonies from the injured and relatives of those killed, many of whom considered Carneal a friend.

Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal’s bullets and uses a wheelchair, said there were too many “what ifs” to set him free. What if he stops taking his medication? What if his meds stop working?

“Continuing his life in prison is the only way for his victims to feel comfortable and safe,” she said.

Nicole Hadley, 14, Jessica James, 17, and Kayce Steger, 15, were killed in the shooting. Jenkins Smith said it would be unfair to them and their loved ones for Carneal to be released.

“They will forever be a 17-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old – only allowed a full decade of life. A consequence of Michael’s choice,” she said.

Christina Hadley Ellegood, whose younger sister Nicole was killed in the shooting, also testified on Monday. Ellegood wrote about the pain of seeing her sister’s body and having to call their mother and tell her that Nicole had been shot.

“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said Monday. “To me, it’s not fair that he can roam free while we live in fear of where he might be.”

A two-person panel of the full parole board hears Carneal’s appeal. They have the option of releasing him or delaying his next chance for parole for up to five years. If the two can’t agree on those options, they can send the case to a full board meeting next Monday. Only the full board has the power to deny Carneal any chance of parole, forcing him to remain in prison for the rest of his life.

Hollan Holm, who was injured that day, said Monday he was lying on the floor of the high school hall, bleeding from the head and thinking he was going to die. But he said Carneal was too young to understand the full consequences of his actions and should be given a chance to be released on probation.

“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the kid I used to ride the bus with every day,” he said. “I think of the child I shared a lunch table with in third grade. I think of what he might have become if, that day, he had had the strength somewhere inside him to make a different choice or take a different path.

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