By Nouran Salahieh and Michelle Watson, CNN
The Kentucky Parole Board on Monday denied parole to Michael Carneal, a man serving a life sentence for killing three students in a school shooting in 1997 when he was 14 years old.
The ruling by the full parole board to have Carneal serve out his sentence comes after a two-person panel failed to reach a unanimous decision about Carneal’s release last week.
“Due to the seriousness of your crime — your crime involved a weapon, you had lives taken, and the seriousness, again — it is the decision of the parole board today to allow you to serve out the remainder of your sentence,” Parole Board Chairperson Ladeidra Jones said Monday.
Carneal, who attended the hearing via video conference, responded, “Yes ma’am,” and stepped out of frame.
Carneal has served nearly 25 years in prison for opening fire at Heath High School in Paducah on December 1, 1997, killing the three students and wounding five others just after the students’ prayer circle in the lobby said “Amen.”
The shooting left a long-lasting mark on the community in southwestern Kentucky and stunned a nation unfamiliar with such violence, coming about 16 months ahead of the Columbine High School massacre — and long before school shootings became distressingly common, with 93 on US campuses in 2020-21 school year, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
While Carneal was sentenced to life in prison, Kentucky law requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.
The parole board’s decision aimed to “maintain a delicate balance between public safety, victim rights, reintegration of the offender and recidivism,” it said in a statement Monday. The board declined to comment further on its deliberations, which occurred in a closed session.
Many survivors and families of the victims were opposed to Carneal’s requested release. But now 39, Carneal pleaded his case to members of the parole board in a hearing last week, saying that if he were released, he planned to live with his parents, continue undergoing mental health treatment and eventually get a job.
The shooting stunned a nation unfamiliar with such violence and left a long-lasting mark on Paducah. All but one person who spoke at the virtual victim’s hearing last week asked that Carneal’s parole be denied.
Carneal’s public defender, Alana Meyer, asked the board to remember Carneal was a teenager when he opened fire, was suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and was struggling with bullying and the transition from middle to high school.
In the quarter century since, Carneal “has committed himself to his mental health treatment, to participating in available educational and vocational programs, and to being a helpful and positive person within the prison,” Meyer wrote.
CNN has reached out to Meyer for comment on the parole board’s decision Monday.
School shooter says he still hears voices
Carneal “has shown deep, genuine remorse and taken responsibility for the shooting” and is dedicated to bettering himself,” Meyer said at last week’s hearing, where Carneal told the panel he has received multiple mental health diagnoses and has long heard voices in his head — including on the day of the shooting.
He said that before opening fire he heard a voice telling him to “pick up the gun out of the backpack and hold it in front of me and shoot.”
“There’s no justification or excuse for what I did,” Carneal said. “I’m offering an explanation. I realize there’s no excuse for what I did.”
Carneal said he still hears voices in his head, but now knows when to ignore them.
During the initial hearing, parole board members Larry Brock and Ladeidra Jones questioned Carneal about the shooting.
“I was 14 at the time and I had not experienced anything in life really. I didn’t know exactly the effect of what I would do eventually. I didn’t know what that would actually mean. I did not know the hurt and the pain it would cause people,” Carneal told them.
“Did you know that if you walked in a school and fired a handgun at multiple people and kill them that that was wrong?” Jones asked.
“Yes,” Carneal responded.
Survivors and families pushed back against Carneal’s request
Many of those victimized by Carneal’s actions 25 years ago provided ample pushback in a victims’ hearing, where families and survivors recounted the impact of the shooting on their lives.
Missy Jenkins Smith was 15 and on her way to class when she saw 14-year-old Nicole Hadley get shot in the head and fall to the ground.
Too young to recognize the sound of gunshots and thinking that it must be a joke, Jenkins Smith stood in front of the girl, waiting for her to get up, when a bullet pierced her chest and she too fell to the ground.
There, she began noticing she lost feeling in her stomach, and then her legs, as chaos unfolded around her.
Jenkins Smith survived the shooting but was left paralyzed from the chest down.
From her wheelchair, Jenkins Smith addressed the parole board last week, sharing how she struggles without the use of her legs and voicing her opposition to Carneal’s release from custody.
“He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Also on December 1, 1997, Michael sentenced me to life in a wheelchair without the possibility of parole ever,” Missy Jenkins Smith said.
Nicole Hadley’s parents and siblings also spoke of their loss, and the fear it would cause them if Carneal was granted parole.
“If the shooter is released, what happens when he doesn’t take his meds? Who’s he going to hurt or kill next? The community and the families don’t deserve to be sentenced to even harsher — to living in fear,” Gwen Hadley said tearfully.
Nicole’s sister, Christina Hadley Ellegood, was at school on the day of the shooting and found her sister lying on the ground with a gunshot wound to her head.
“Nicole was given a life sentence. Michael (pleaded) to a life sentence,” she told the board. “I believe that he should have to spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Nicole does not get a second chance. Why should he?”
All but one person who spoke at the victims’ hearing last week asked that Carneal’s parole be denied: Hollan Holm, whom Carneal shot in the head, told the board he understood why people want to keep him in prison but he would vote to give Carneal another chance.
Holm recalled lying on the floor of Heath High, bleeding from the head, praying and readying himself to die at the age of 14. He had been shot by the boy he rode the bus and ate lunch with growing up.
Though Holm still lives with mental and emotional scars from that day, he said that when he thinks of Carneal, he thinks of his 10-year-old daughter and he can’t imagine holding her to the same standard to which he’d hold an adult.
“If the mental health experts think he can be successful on the outside, he should get that chance,” Holm said, adding that he understands the anger people feel. “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 of my own children, and I think the man that boy became should get the chance to try to do and be better.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins Smith, now 40 and a mother herself, told CNN she thinks a teenager should have known the consequences of pulling a trigger.
“I have a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old and both of them know that if they point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger, that could be a life-or-death situation and that there’s consequences for that,” she said. “So I don’t want that to send the wrong messages to other people who might possibly do this and think they can get out at 39.”
The harm done from the shooting stretched beyond what happened to her and the others who were shot, Jenkins Smith said, and beyond the custodians who had to clean the students’ blood off the floor, or the doctors and nurses who had to try to save the dying children.
“There was a lot of people that felt like their innocence was taken away. There was a lot of concern of ‘will this happen at my school?’ There was a lot of people affected,” Jenkins Smith said.
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CNN’s Holly Yan, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Dakin Andone and Raja Razek contributed to this report.