Carneal Paducah Kentucky school shooting shooter
Michael Carneal is escorted out of the McCracken County Courthouse after his arraignment in Paducah, Ky., Jan. 15, 1998. (Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal via AP)
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By Travis Loller, AP

When 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on his fellow students during a before-school prayer meeting in 1997, school shootings were not yet a part of the national consciousness. The carnage that left three students dead and five more injured at Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, ended when Carneal put down his weapon and the principal walked him to the school office — a scene that seems unimaginable today.

Also stretching today’s imagination — Carneal’s life sentence guaranteed an opportunity for parole after 25 years, the maximum sentence permissible at the time given his age.

A quarter century later, Carneal is 39 with a parole hearing next week that comes at a very different time in American life — after Sandy Hook, after Uvalde. Today police officers and metal detectors are an accepted presence in many schools, and even kindergartners are drilled to prepare for active shooters.

“Twenty-five years seemed like so long, so far away,” Missy Jenkins Smith recalls thinking at the time of the sentencing. Jenkins Smith was 15 when she was shot by Carneal, someone she considered a friend. The bullet left her paralyzed, and she uses a wheelchair to get around. Over the years, she has counted down the time until Carneal would be eligible for parole.

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

“I would think, ‘It’s been 10 years. How many more years?’ At the 20-year anniversary memorial, I thought, ‘It’s coming up.’”

Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied school violence, said public opinion around school shootings and juvenile punishment has changed a lot over the last 25 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, Astor provided therapy to children who had committed very serious crimes, including murder, but were rehabilitated and not jailed.

“Today all of them would have been locked up,” he said. “But the majority went on to do good things.”

Jenkins Smith knows first-hand that troubled children can be helped. She worked for years as a counselor for at-risk youth, where her wheelchair served as a stark visual reminder of what violence can do, she said.

“Kids who would threaten school shootings, terroristic threatening, were sent to me,” she said. Some are now adults. “It’s great to see what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve changed their lives around. They’ve learned from their bad decisions.”

But that doesn’t mean she thinks Carneal should be set free. For one thing, she worries that he is not equipped to handle life outside of prison and could still harm others. She also doesn’t think it would be right for him to walk free when the people he injured are still suffering.

“For him to have a chance at 39. People get married at 39. They have children,” she said. “It’s not right for him to possibly have a normal life that those three girls he killed will never have.”

Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger.

A Heath High School student screams at seeing the scene of a shooting at the school where fellow student Michael Carneal opened fire, leaving three students dead and five wounded Dec. 1, 1997, near Paducah, Ky. (Steve Nagy/The Paducah Sun via AP, File)

Astor said that when it comes to the worst crimes, like many people, he struggles with the question of what age children should be held strictly accountable for their actions. As a class exercise, he has his students consider the appropriate punishment for a perpetrator at different ages. Should a 16-year-old be treated the same as a 12-year-old? Should a 12-year-old be treated the same as a 40-year-old?

Without any national consensus, you end up with a patchwork of laws and policies that sometimes result in very different punishments for nearly identical crimes, he said.

The shooting at Heath High School took place on Dec. 1, 1997, the Monday after Thanksgiving break. Less than four months later, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson shot and killed four classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas. They wounded another nine children and one adult. The pair were tried as juveniles and released on their 21st birthdays.

Two decades later, in 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At the same time Carneal is being considered for possible release, a Florida juryis decidingwhether to sentence Cruz to death.

Jenkins Smith has tried for years to understand why Carneal opened fire on his fellow students that day. She was in the marching band with Carneal, and, before the shooting, “I loved being around him because he made a boring day fun,” she said.

She met with Carneal in prison in 2007 and had a long conversation with him. He apologized to her, and she said she has forgiven him.

“A lot of people think that exonerates him from consequences, but I don’t think so,” she said.

Michael Carneal, 27, is escorted by a guard from the U.S. District Courthouse in Paducah, Ky., March 18, 2011. Carneal pleaded guilty in 1998 to killing three students and injuring five others in 1997 at Heath High School, when he was 14.  (Stephen Lance Dennee/The Paducah Sun via AP, File)

Carneal’s parole hearing is scheduled to start on Monday with testimony from those injured in the shooting and close relatives of those who were killed. Jenkins Smith said she knows of only one victim who supports some form of supervised release for Carneal — less confining than prison but not unrestricted freedom. On Tuesday, Carneal will make his case from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. If the board rules against release, they can decide how long Carneal should wait before his next opportunity for parole.

The parole hearing will be conducted by videoconference, but Jenkins Smith said she will position her camera to show her full body so the parole board can see her wheelchair. It will be, she said, “a reminder that everyone who experienced that impact 25 years ago is still dealing with it, for the rest of their lives.”

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  1. A chance at parole is part of the game…even Charles Manson has had chances at parole…and been denied every time.

  2. A person should be held accountable for their decisions beginning the day they are eligible to take the automobile driver’s license test.

    • He was 14 and killed 3 people. There are some things that should be clear a bit earlier than “when they can drive.”

      • “He was 14 and killed 3 people. There are some things that should be clear a bit earlier than “when they can drive.” ”

        We can make exceptions when useful.

        • Why should we? If someone does something as horrible as this why isn’t it an instant death sentence? A person who does this DOESN’T deserve to be treated humanely. And who cares if they “might” go on later in life to be more responsible, there’s no taking back what they’ve done. So why not just be done with it, they’ve shown themselves to be a worthless member of society. Why continue to let them use oxygen that should be reserved for those of us who act more responsibly?

        • “If someone does something as horrible as this why isn’t it an instant death sentence?”

          There’s a *long* list of people convicted and sentenced to death, and then executed, who were later found to be innocent.

          A government should never be allowed to kill its citizens. Prosecutors have been known to lie and/or suppress evidence to get a conviction. They have a personal interest in getting someone locked away or executed…

        • Geoff, I know all about that long list too, but in a case like this with cut and dried evidence there’s no question about who dunnit. There’s no room here for the prosecution to be lying.

        • Geoff, please provide this list. I have followed death penalty cases for years. The number of innocents in the US who have been executed won’t even fill five fingers.

        • “An American” stated :
          “The number of innocents in the US who have been executed won’t even fill five fingers.”

          One source cites at least 190 dead :

          “The number of innocents in the US who have been executed won’t even fill five fingers.”

          Another states at least 180 :

          “Since 1973, more than 8,700 people in the U.S. have been sent to death row. At least 182 weren’t guilty—their lives upended by a system that nearly killed them.”

          And, there’s this :

          In the spirit magnanimity, I humbly accept your apology in advance… 🙂

          Would you like more? 🙂

  3. You either get a life sentence or you don’t. This sounds to me like anyone that thinks people get ‘life’ sentences have been lied to and fooled. If you are out after 25 years then it’s NOT life. It’s 25 years.

      • You either get a life sentence or you don’t and there should be very few life sentences. If a person is so screwed up and so obviously guilty that they shouldn’t ever be released, why is our tax $$$$$ being used to lock them up ? Public executions used to be a thing.

        • “…why is our tax $$$$$ being used to lock them up ? Public executions used to be a thing.”

          Prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries are not perfect. What is the acceptable margin of error for the death penalty? How do we justify to the public that some innocents just have to “take one for the team”?

          Recommend reading “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham. The book is non-fiction. Read about the errors leading to conviction, and the effort to save the suspect.

        • Some ofenders are guilty beyond any doubt. Like the case here. Also repeat offenders, after a couple attempted murder cases or felony assaults etc. pretty good chance they might have succeeded this time. Each case is different. I agree about not executing innocent people but some so obviously deserve it.
          If only our legal system was truly a justice system……

        • The argument against the death penalty is as specious and flawed as the argument against guns. It’s just another flavor of “if it saves even one life.” Governments have ALWAYS had the authority and power of life and death over their citizens. That’s part of the social contract – I give up my right to vengeance against a murderer so that the state can impartially mete out judgment. You want to change the requirement for the death penalty to “guilty beyond shadow of a doubt”? Fine. Incidents like this one are the perfect example of satisfying that requirement. If the state refuses to uphold their part of the social contract we revert to a state of nature where the Government no longer has legitimacy.

        • jwm
          life in prison is basically a long drawn out death sentence, and we all pay for it. I might be more inclined to agree to life or even an appropriate for the crime number of years if there was real punishment involved. Working out in a gym and taking college classes ain’t punishment. Put them to work. Real work.
          Look at the looser in this story, totally makes my point. Probably eating cheetoes and trolling the net all day. Albert is that you?

        • Tired. I agree with the punishment deal. Life with no parole or mercy. Go back to chain gangs.

          As for his looks. He was 14 when he did the crime. He’s touching 40 now. We all changed from youth to middle age.

        • “Some ofenders are guilty beyond any doubt.”

          And some are genuinely remorseful for their actions. I say we should accommodate them, without a forced death penalty.

          Let’s offer them an early check-out option. Calculate their expected lifespan, and how much it will cost to house them for that long, and offer to end their misery and give the savings in cash to their victim’s family. The decision to check out is solely up to the killer.

          Frees up a badly-needed prison cell, and financially helps the family wronged. A win-win proposition that at least deserves discussion, I say… 🙂

        • I oddly agree with Sam I am on this one. There were 17 people exonerated in Illinois that were on death row, it was such a high rate the governor commuted the sentences of everyone to life w/o parole.

          In reality it costs a fortune and years to get someone to the chair, firing squad, lethal injection etc. so it’s really a moot point. Even Gacy with something like 2 dozen bodies in the crawl space took about 15 years of appeals and the likes. Considering the marked LACK of consequences for a government that railroads people I think it’s probably safe to have a bit of extra caution.

          I absolutely have zero issue with the morality of execution as there’s some people who need to be dead because they will never stop hurting others so long as they live, but it’s few and the execution is horrible.

    • “…Michael Carneal’s Canteen Fund has been well topped off.”

      What else has he done in there for the past 25 years besides eat and jerk off?

      Good to hear the ones he impacted will be there and voice their concerns of him possibly being released. May he die in that shithole of a heart attack before he’s 50… 🙁

      • “He was 14 when he went in. He was bound to change a little by 40.”

        He made an adult decision to pick that gun up and lash out. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time, busted.”

        Fuck him… 🙁

        • I meant his physical appearance. As far as I’m concerned he should be wearing ankle chains for the rest of his life and swing a pick.

        • Miner – If a child can decide at 8 years old that they want life-altering “gender-affirming” surgical procedures, then they apparently can make adult decisions in other areas as well.

          Pre-mediated murder should be punishable by death.

        • MajorStupidity,

          “How does a 14 year old make an adult decision?”

          Cool story, bro!!! Now do abortion and gender reassignment surgery, you lying f***wad. MajorStupidity, if you didn’t have double standards, you’d have no standards at all.

      • Perhaps change for the worse, having learned lots from other career criminals in the 25 years he has been incarcerated. I would be interested in seeing his list of offenses while in prison; what he has he done to make himself a better person; has he assiduously attended counseling sessions; do other inmates report that he is serious in his open display of reform; what job skills has he learned so that if he is released he can seek employment; has he already made attempts at seeking employment upon release?

        You can write to companies ahead of time anticipating the you might be released on parole. There is a whole list of activities that would need to be seriously addressed before I would vote to parole him if I were on the Kentucky Parole Board. I would also seriously listen to the voices of his victims who are still confined to the limitations on their lives due to his actions. Fourteen is old enough to know that you are committing a serious crime. There needs to be more facing up to the results of our actions.

        For those who like to point to so-called innocent executions, most of the proponents of no death penalty like to trot that tired old screed out. There is a big difference between “He is absolutely not guilty” and “It has been so long, all the evidence is lost, witnesses are missing or dead, there may be a question about his guilty after 30 years”

        Remember, when you read a book that has for its premise that John J. Killer was pure as the driven snow, you are not getting all the facts. You are getting the facts that the author uses to prove his point. Before you leap to any conclusions, perhaps one should read the entire trial transcript, review the police files, review the DA’s files, review the defense attorney’s files before jumping on the band wagon of “an innocent man killed by the state.”

        Why all those different sources? Because oftentimes there is evidence that is conclusive but because the police officer didn’t wait to get a search warrant, that evidence that would have conclusively proved his guilt is ruled inadmissible because of a technical error.

        While there should be some administrative punishment for officers who willingly violate known rights, by ruling evidence inadmissible because of a rule violation by an overeager cop, the victims and society suffer for the cop’s willful neglect. Perhaps if the cop were fired and barred from law enforcement for life it would eliminate some of the surreptitious activity of law enforcement.

        Watching an argument between the public defender and the defendant, after the defendant was taken out of the courtroom for lunch I asked the DPD what the beef was. He replied that he was having trouble convincing his client that testifying that the cops were lying, that he didn’t have 20 bindles of heroin when arrested, he had 40 bindles wouldn’t help his case at all. Both the DPD and I knew that the cops had wrongfully kept 20 bindles of heroin out of evidence which was illegal but the accused getting on the stand and admitting to having more dope than the cops alleged would be what is called a judicial admission and the judge would be very reluctant to allow him to confess in open court under oath to a more serious crime than was charged. So what could be done? Absolutely nothing. Who would believe a drug pusher? The cops would deny it and ask why on earth they wouldn’t charge him with the more serious crime? The weight of the evidence would be against the defendant who was going to prison on the lesser quantity anyway.

  4. This murderer should be paroled the instant his dead victims come back to life and Missy Jenkins Smith walks again without assistance.

    That’s a fair compromise.

  5. Simple solution have photos of him released as well as his parole location and have law enforcement agencies respond they are too overworked to provide assurances of his protection or investigate his death if something happens….

    NOW the Criminal Entitlement system has a choice…keep him relatively safe in prison…or release him to a pretty much obvious fate

  6. Never mind prison…When I was growing up if I even thought of doing something like that my mind reading daddy would have beat me to death:)

  7. This was one of the killers inspired by Stephen King’s novel rage. Tell us again Stevie how guns are the problem. I just hope the next wave of mental cases he inspires aren’t doctor sleep fans.

  8. AND? He’s as entitled, as much as you might dissaprove [so actually would I] to apply for parole as much as anybody. It is after all THE LAW. I can like you register my objections in which case you will have to provide evidence as whyn tis guy should ba an exception in law. and get enough people to support you case – not that it will change much.

    • 2A is the law. And you constantly whine about it. Make you a deal. I won’t talk about his parole if you won’t talk about 2a.

      • Like every Leftist Scum ™ he feels compelled to force his spew on others not interested in hearing it. I feel compelled to kick him square in the teeth in return whenever he opens his arrogant yap.

        I remain, spreading the love, and just being neighborly… 🙂

  9. @Geoff “I’m getting too old for this shit” PR
    “Frees up a badly-needed prison cell, and financially helps the family wronged.”

    What a great segue into another episode of one of my favorite hobby horses….

    All prisoners should be put on a national roster of needed body parts. Those registered remain eligible to provide whatever part or organ is needed, as long as the prisoner remains incarcerated. To be humane, no part that alone provides the total function to the prisoner’s body can be donated (two eyes, two legs, two arms, etc, leaving one to the prisoner; no heart transplants) Yes, I am still refining the concept.

    • Awesome! The Chinese Communist Party completely agrees with you. After all, they routinely steal peoples’ organs, but those are only criminals. The CCP has never once done anything wrong to a law abiding citizens of theirs, and I genuinely say that with zero sarcasm.

      (Of course, they constantly change the law on a whim without even bothering to inform the people, but the point still stands: by definition, the CCP only harms criminals, even though they themselves get to decide who fits that description and they expand it every day. Hmmm does that sound familiar?)

      • “Awesome! The Chinese Communist Party completely agrees with you. After all, they routinely steal peoples’ organs, but those are only criminals.”

        I could modify my program, such that people being released from prison can have donated parts replaced by parts from other prisoners. Talk about diversity.

  10. “Why continue to let them use oxygen that should be reserved for those of us who act more responsibly?”

    I suppose the answer comes down to whether we have a system of revenge, or a semblance of justice. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” wasn’t a command, but a limit on punishment to tamp down demands for vengeance.

  11. Sam UR a Genius!
    Limit this to Non-Violent Offenders and you have a deal. (Sorry, Violent People, do your time.)
    A kidney or a half of a liver can save a life IF the donor is an excellent match.
    Otherwise, there is no cost to the perp at all…No SKIN In The Game…

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    • “Otherwise, there is no cost to the perp at all…No SKIN In The Game…Sorry, couldn’t resist.”

      Nicely done; apology unnecessary.

      • “Thanks for proving my point!”

        I put the question out there yesterday: “How many innocent people executed is an acceptable number”?

        No replies, yet.

  12. We should be talking about Antisemitism of N.Y. State Democrats keeping David Berkowitz and Joel Rifkin locked up while releasing blacks whom lure police into ambushes and murder them in cold blood.

  13. This guy should be doing all he can to STAY in prison.

    His main concern if released would no doubt be the possibility of coming across a victims relative who hasn’t accepted his remorse and/or the loss of their loved one.

    Living a quarter century with a hole in ones heart can make maladjusted people do evil things.

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