Kentucky rifleman gets a chance to be pardoned 25 years later

When 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on his students during a pre-school vigil in 1997, school shootings were not yet part of the national consciousness. The carnage that left three students dead and five others injured at Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, ended when Carneal dropped his weapon and the principal led him to the school office — a seemingly impossible scene. imaginable today.

Also expanding the imagination of today – Carneal’s life sentence guarantees a chance to be pardoned after 25 years, the maximum sentence allowed at the time of his age.

A quarter of a century later, 39-year-old Carneal with a pardon hearing next week takes place 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 kindergarten students are trained to prepare for active shootings.

“25 years seemed too long, too far away,” Missy Jenkins Smith recalled thinking at the time of sentencing. Jenkins Smith was 15 years old when she was shot by Carneal, someone she considers a friend. The bullet paralyzed her, and she had to use a wheelchair to get around. Over the years, she has been counting down the time until Carneal qualified for parole.

“I would think, ‘It’s been 10 years. How many more years are there?” At the 20th anniversary, I thought, ‘It’s coming.’ ‘

Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles who has researched school violence, said public opinion surrounds school shootings and juvenile punishment. Adolescence has changed a lot in the past 25 years. During the 1980s and 1990s, Astor provided therapy to children who had committed very serious crimes, including murder, but were rehabilitated and not imprisoned.

“Today they will all be locked up,” he said. “But the majority have gone on to do good things.”

Jenkins Smith knows firsthand that children in need can be helped. She has worked for many years as a counselor for at-risk youth, where her wheelchair serves as a clear visual reminder of what violence can do. , she speaks.

“Children who threatened to shoot at school, threatened with terror, were sent to me,” she said. Some are now adults. “It’s great to see what they’ve achieved 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 released. However, she worried that he was not equipped to handle life outside of prison and could still harm others. She also didn’t think it would be right for him to be free to leave while the people he was wounded were still suffering.

“Give him a chance at 39. People get married at 39. They have kids,” she said. “It’s not right that he could have a normal life that the three girls he killed would never have.”

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

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

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

The Heath High School shooting took place on December 1, 1997, the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday. Less than four months later, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson fatally shot four classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., wounding nine other children and one adult. The couple 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 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. At the same time Carneal was being considered for possible release, a Florida jury was deciding whether to sentence Cruz to death.

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

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

“Many people think that will save him from the consequences, but I don’t think so,” she said.

Carneal’s pardon hearing is scheduled to begin Monday with testimony from those injured in the shooting and relatives of those who were killed. Jenkins Smith said she only knows one victim who advocated some form of supervised release for Carneal – less confinement than prison but not unrestricted freedom. On Tuesday, Carneal will bring his case from the Kentucky State Reform Agency in La Grange. If the board stipulates not to be released, it can decide how long Carneal should wait before getting the next chance to be pardoned.

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


News researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report from New York City.

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