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25 years later, US school shooter seeks parole

By AI HEPING in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-26 09:17

Before the school day began on Dec 1, 1997, at Heath High School in the small US town of West Paducah, Kentucky, teens gathered for an informal daily prayer session.

As the students held hands, one said, "Let's pray for our safety."

"I thought that was so weird — why are we praying for that?" Brittney Thomas, a freshman at the time, later recalled. "That had never been a prayer request before."

The prayer group had just finished when, a few feet away, Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old freshman, put in earplugs, took a stolen pistol out of a bag and fired on the students, killing three — Nicole Hadley, 14, Jessica James, 17, and Kayce Steger, 15 — and wounding five others.

In the 2009 documentary Going Postal, Carneal said: "I had heard in my head that I better do it because time was running out. I kept hearing these different things in my head — 'Now is the time, do it now.'"

In the 2019 book If I Don't Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, a collection of essays written by those directly affected by school mass shootings, Kelly Carneal Firesheets wrote in an essay: "This was supposed to be the best times of our teenage lives. But then, my little brother brought a gun into our school and sent the entire world to hell in a handbasket."

Carneal was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder. However, Kentucky law requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.

That opportunity will come on Monday when a parole board could decide to release him or order him to stay in prison for the rest of his life.

Carneal is seeking parole in what is one of the first known instances of a school shooter facing the possibility of leaving prison. Many such shooters are either killed during the attack or sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The West Paducah attack was among the first school shootings in the United States, but the problem continues to afflict the nation.

On Sept 19, a two-person parole board panel heard from relatives of victims who were killed in the West Paducah shooting and from some of the wounded. The hearing was held via videoconference and broadcast on local television. The next day, the panel heard from Carneal.

All but one of the seven speakers on the first day asked the parole board to keep Carneal in prison. The exception was Hollan Holm, who was shot in the head — around a dozen staples were needed to close the scalp wound — but suffered no permanent physical injuries. Holm said he has endured emotional trauma for which he has received counseling.

Holm, who like Carneal was a 14-year-old fellow freshman at the time of the shooting, said he can't separate Carneal the shooter from the boy he rode the bus with every day to elementary school and sat next to in the lunchroom.

"If the mental health experts think he can be successful (outside of prison), he should get that chance," Holm said.

Christina Hadley Ellegood, the sister of Nicole Hadley, who was killed by Carneal, said, "I knew this day was going to come.... I believe that he should have to spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Nicole does not get a second chance. Why should he?"

The bullet that hit Missy Jenkins Smith paralyzed her from the chest down. Jenkins Smith was in the school band with Carneal and had considered him a friend.

She visited Carneal at the prison in 2007 and said he apologized to her.

"He is doing well behind bars, and he should stay there," she told the Louisville Courier-Journal before the hearing.

The next day, speaking during a videoconference, Carneal, now 39, made his case for release from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange.

If paroled, according to the reentry plan presented to the parole board, Carneal would move in with his parents at their home in Cold Spring in northern Kentucky.

He attributed the shooting to his mental health and immaturity, but added that it was "not justified at all. There's no excuse for it at all."

However, he said, "I would like to do something in the future that could contribute to society."

He also told the panel that he still hears voices in his head, and apologized for the shooting.

"I would like to say to you and the victims and their friends and families and the whole community that I'm sorry for what I did."

After his testimony, the two members of the parole panel announced that they hadn't reached a unanimous decision and were referring his case to the full board, which will meet on Monday.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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