Victims who survived a school shooting 25 years ago spoke to members of the Kentucky Parole Board Monday as the board considered the possibility of releasing a man who killed three people and injured five others when he started the fire in 1997. opened in a high school.
A two-day parole hearing for 39-year-old Michael Carneal began Monday morning. Carneal was 14 at the time of the shooting. After being convicted, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years, making him eligible for release in December.
Two members of Kentucky’s Parole Board, including Chairman Ladeidra Jones and Larry Brock, learned of numerous victims and their families involved in the Dec. 1, 1997, shooting in the lobby of Heath High School near Paducah.
Carneal pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and one charge of first degree burglary. He has served 24 years and nine months of his sentence since Monday.
The shooting killed 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Among those injured was Missy Jenkins Smith, who became paralyzed after being shot by Carneal and used a wheelchair.
Jenkins Smith was among the survivors who spoke to the victims’ families on Monday and said they were sentenced to life in prison alongside Carneal as a result of his actions. However, they came without the possibility of parole, they said.
“He sentenced me to life in a wheelchair with no chance of parole, ever,” said Jenkins Smith. Jenkins said she thought Carneal should serve the rest of his sentence.
“I could talk for hours about what my life has been like, every minute, every day for the past quarter century without the use of my legs. From the way I get out of bed in the morning, to the shower, to reaching the cabinets in my kitchen, to getting in and out of my car, to the limited seating in a public space,” said Jenkins Smith.
Nicole Hadley’s family also talked about Hadley’s life sentence when she was murdered, and the life sentence they received for living a life without their loved one.
“I think he should serve the rest of his sentence that he was sentenced to,” said Gwen Hadley, mother of Nicole Hadley. “We as the families, the survivors and the entire community were given a life sentence by the shooter and had no chance to get a second chance or a reduced sentence and be released from this sentence.”
Her father, Chuck Hadley, said in an impact statement that they were again reminded of all the things they missed with their daughter, including her high school and college degrees, a wedding, the birth of her children, and birthdays and holidays. Nicole Hadley’s brother Andrew said he still has to accept parole is an option.
Nicole Hadley’s sister, Christina Ellegood, said her sister had plans to graduate top of her class, attend the University of North Carolina, and become a physical therapist for the WNBA. Because of Carneal’s actions, she said her sister will never be able to help people the way she wanted to.
“She was sentenced to life in prison, and he pleaded for one, which he should serve,” Nicole’s sister, Christine Ellegood, testified.
Commonwealth attorney Dan Boaz, who was the McCracken County attorney at the time of the shooting, said the shooting shook the community to its core.
Boaz said the law treated 14-year-old Carneal as an adult in his court proceedings after the shooting. On Monday, Boaz said the probation commission should continue to treat Carneal as an adult.
“We ask that he pay for the consequences of his actions and be denied parole,” Boaz said. “If (Jenkins) and other people talked about those who were at Heath High School that day, have been sentenced to life without parole as a result of what he did. We think fairness and justice require that he suffer the same consequence; that he will be denied parole and serve the sentence.”
Carneal is a ‘different person’ after 25 years, says a victim
Hollan Holm, who was shot in the head by Carneal, spoke at the parole hearing Monday and said he thought he was going to die. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is dealing with anxiety related to the shooting.
“It was serious and terrible and the consequences continue to this day,” said Holm, who is now 40.
But he also said he realizes that both he and Carneal were children at the time of the shooting.
“I am a different person today than I was that day. From that day on, I’ve continued to start a family and have a career—something I couldn’t comprehend as I lay bleeding on the floor in that lobby,” Holm said. “Michael Carneal has spent nearly two-thirds of his life incarcerated for his actions as a child. He is now an adult, in prison for the actions he committed as a child.
“I should think after 25 years that he is a different person than he was that day, as we are all different people today than 25 years ago. My oldest child turned 10 this year and I can’t imagine giving her the standard of an adult. … I cannot weigh the sum of his life against the worst deeds of his life, on the worst day of my life.”
He said that regardless of the outcome of the hearings, it will not bring back the lives of the three girls who were murdered.
“No punishment can undo that loss,” he said. “If the board were to grant Michael Carneal parole, I understand that he would not go out without obligations. …If the mental health experts think he can be successful on the outside, he should be given that chance.”
After Monday’s hearing, there will be an additional hearing on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. ET to qualify for parole with Carneal. Jones, the chair of the probation committee, said there were three options as a result of the hearings. She and Brock can delay Carneal’s parole for up to five years.
If they couldn’t come to a unanimous decision, the decision would be presented to the entire probation commission, which could delay his parole for up to 10 years. The final decision could be to order him to serve his entire sentence.
The council could make a decision at the end of Tuesday’s hearing. If they cannot reach a unanimous decision by the end of the hearing, it will go to the full board meeting on September 26.
Jones said hearing from the victim was an essential part of their decision and was in no way a means of re-traumatizing the survivors or the victims’ families.
“For the families and victims of Carneal, we cannot imagine the pain you all have endured since this crime took place,” Jones said. “The board appreciates the information you have shared with us today and we only ask that you trust the board to make the right decision.”