Kentucky’s parole board will consider that tough question Tuesday as Michael Carneal makes his case for freedom.
Carneal, now 39, was 14 when he opened fire at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky.
His public defender has asked the parole board to remember that Carneal was just 14 years old at the time of the mass shooting, suffered from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and struggled with bullying and the transition from middle school to high school.
For a quarter of a century, Carneal has been “committed to his mental health treatment, participating in available educational and vocational programs, and being a supportive and positive person inside the prison,” attorney Alana Meyer wrote this month.
“Despite his surroundings, he has worked hard to improve himself and make the best of his situation.”
A victim’s hearing was held Monday, and Carneal’s request for release was pushed back by a local prosecutor, family members and survivors of the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting outside Heath High School.
One survivor, who was shot in the head by Carneal, told the commission that he understood why people wanted to keep him in prison, but that he would vote to give the convicted killer another chance.
After Carneal made his case via video conference Tuesday, a two-member parole board panel could deny or grant him parole, said board chairwoman Ladeidra Jones.
If he and board member Larry Brock disagree with Carneal’s fate, the jury could send his case to the full board, which meets Sept. 26. The full board shall have power to grant or deny parole, or to postpone it pending its case. 10 years, Jones said.
The victims recount years of horror
Chuck and Gwen Hadley — whose 14-year-old daughter Nicole Hadley was one of the youths killed that day — spoke to the board Monday, saying they miss Nicole’s smile, sense of humor and “wonderful hug.” They want Carneal to spend his life in prison because he never showed remorse or took responsibility for those he injured and killed, the board was told.
“We missed Nicole’s high school graduation, college graduation, her wedding, her kids, our grandkids and many birthdays and holidays together,” Chuck Hadley told the board.
Christina Hadley Ellegood — who often visits the memorial stone for her younger sister, Jessica James and Kayce Steger, when she’s having a rough day — found Nicole on the floor after she was shot.
She also told the board she opposed Carneal’s parole, saying Nicole was denied the opportunity to pursue her dreams of graduating as a grad student, attending the University of North Carolina, working as a WNBA physical therapist or running a special needs camp. kids.
“Nicole was given a life sentence. Michael (asked for) a life sentence,” he said. “I think she should spend the rest of her life in prison. Nicole doesn’t have a second chance. Why should she?”
Survivor Hollan Holm opened her statement recounting the day she was shot: “I was a 14-year-old kid. I laid on the floor in the hallway of Heath High School, bleeding from the side of my head and I thought I was going to die. I said a prayer and I was ready to die.”
The head wound required a dozen staples to repair, he said, but the mental and emotional scars run deeper. Holm still struggles with crowds, and worries if she sits with her back to the door at a restaurant, she said. He scans the room for danger and ways out. Fireworks and balloon bursts cause panic, and each school shooting forces him to relive the day he was shot, he said.
But when he thinks of Carneal, he said, he thinks of his oldest daughter, 10, and he can’t imagine holding her to the same level he would hold an adult.
“If metal health experts think he can be successful out there, he should get that chance,” Holm said, adding that he understands the anger people are feeling. “I feel that anger, too, but when I feel that anger, I think about the 14-year-old boy who acted that day and I think about my children, and I think the man that boy became should have a chance to try and be better.”
Missy Jenkins Smith played in a band with Carneal and remembers being bullied and bullied before the day she was shot at age 15. After Carneal left him in his wheelchair, Smith said he could talk for hours about how he fights without the use of it. her legs — getting out of bed, bathing, getting to closets, getting in and out of cars and “the shame of the special accommodations that have to be made everywhere.”
Where she has to take care of her 12- and 15-year-old boys, she said, they are taking care of her. However, she will not be able to dance with them at their weddings.
Having never taken care of himself since he was 14, Carneal struggles with the conclusion of medical experts that he can be a productive member of society. What if the stress of life outside prison becomes too much? What if he stops taking his medicine?
“His life in prison is the only way for his victims to feel comfortable and safe, regardless of what happens to them,” Smith said.
Attorney: Carneal has a support system
In his letter to the Parole Board, Meyer said his client has “shown deep and genuine remorse and taken responsibility for the shooting.” He also sought to improve himself, maintaining a treatment program for 20 years, completing his GED and anger management program, and taking college courses.
Carneal was suffering from the early stages of schizophrenia — which is difficult to diagnose in teenagers — at the time of the shooting, the lawyer wrote, and “it has never been denied that he committed the alleged crimes or was deeply mentally ill at the time of the crimes.”
Based on U.S. Supreme Court cases stating that juvenile offenders have “greater opportunities for reformation,” Meyer presented a re-entry plan showing that Carneal would have significant support from his family and medical professionals.
Now housed at the Northeast Kentucky State Reformatory in Louisville, Carneal will move to live with his parents in Cold Spring, across the state from Paducah, if he is paroled, according to a re-entry plan submitted to the parole board.
The parents will help with finances, employment, housing and transportation to doctor’s appointments and meetings with the parole officer, the plan says, adding that they will go to mental health programs in Cold Spring and the Erlanger area.
“Michael is aware that any apology is hollow, but he is truly sorry for the physical and emotional pain he caused his victims and the Heath High School community at large,” the re-entry plan states. “While there is nothing he can do to erase that pain now, he plans to contribute to society in any positive way he can.”
Prosecutor Daniel Boaz told the board that he was the district attorney at the time of the shooting, which “shook us to the core, to put it mildly.” The heinous nature of Carneal’s crime allowed authorities to treat him as an adult under Kentucky law, and the state should continue to treat him “as an adult who must pay the consequences of his actions.”
CNN’s Nouran Salahieh contributed to this report.