Kentucky man who shot classmates in 1997 jailed for life

A Kentucky man who killed three fellow students and injured five others by the age of 14 must spend the rest of his life in prison without another opportunity to seek parole, the Kentucky Parole Board voted Monday.

Michael Carneal, now 39, told parole board members last week he would live with his parents and continue his mental health treatment if they agreed to release him. He admitted he still hears voices like those who told him in 1997 to steal a neighbor’s pistol and fire it into Heath High School’s crowded lobby. However, Carneal said that with therapy and medication, he learned to control his behavior.

The board, meeting in Frankfurt, voted 7-0 to refuse parole after about 30 minutes of private deliberation. Carneal watched the vote via Zoom from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. He sat huddled in a small chair as Kentucky Parole Board chairwoman Ladeidra Jones asked each member to vote.

Jones then told Carneal that he would be serving his life sentence “due to the seriousness of your crime.”

Carneal just said, “Yes ma’am” and quickly left.

Missy Jenkins Smith, who had considered Carneal a friend before being paralyzed by one of his bullets, said she couldn’t sleep Sunday night because she was so concerned about the decision. She said she was shocked after hearing it.

“It’s so hard to believe that I don’t have to worry about this anymore,” she said. “I guess I’ll realize it later. It will sink in.”

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

Missy Jenkins Smith poses for a photo at her home in Kirksey, Kentucky on September 9, 2022. Smith was paralyzed from the chest down after being shot by Michael Carneal in 1997. (Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal via AP)

Jenkins Smith, Alsip, others who were wounded in the shooting and families of those killed spoke to the Parole Board panel last week. Most expressed the wish that Carneal should spend the rest of his life in prison. Carneal told the panel there are days when he believes he deserves to die for what he’s done, but other days he thinks he could still do some good in the world.

Jones previously told Carneal her “number one priority is maintaining public safety.” She shared with him that his inmate file listed his mental health prognosis as “poor” and said he had “paranoid thoughts with violent visual images.”

Speaking via videoconference from the Kentucky State Reformatory last week, Carneal apologized to his victims, including the entire close-knit community of Heath, just outside of Paducah. On December 1, 1997, a shooting killed 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, who Carneal said was a “very good friend” to him.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” he said. “I know it won’t change anything or make anything better, but I’m sorry for what I did.”

Carneal was a freshman when he opened fire on a prayer group outside the school that met in the lobby every morning. He received the maximum sentence for someone his age, life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

A two-person parole board reviewed his case last week but failed to reach a unanimous decision and sent the case to Monday’s general assembly. Kentucky man who shot classmates in 1997 jailed for life

Tom Vazquez

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