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Heath High School shooting victims testify in Carneal parole hearing 25 years later

Kentucky Parole Board
Melissa "Missy" Jenkins Smith, a victim of the 1997 Heath High School shooting, testifies during the parole hearing for shooter Michael Carneal.

Victims and family members of victims of the 1997 Heath High School shooting in far western Kentucky gave testimony Monday in the shooter’s parole hearing.

It’s been nearly 25 years since Michael Carneal fatally shot three of his fellow students – Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger – and wounded five others – Shelley Schaberg, Melissa "Missy" Jenkins Smith, Kelly Hard Alsip, Hollan Holm and Craig Keene – in West Paducah that December.

Carneal, 14 at the time of the shooting, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after a guilty plea was accepted due to his mental illness.

Two members of the Kentucky Parole Board — board chair Ladeirdre N. Jones and Larry Brock — conducted Monday’s proceedings via Zoom. Jones said there are three possible options at this point: parole Carneal, defer to the whole board or have him serve out his life sentence.

Almost all victims advocated against Carneal’s parole.

Hollan Holm, who survived being shot in the head by Carneal, spoke about his emotional journey since the shooting.

“Everyone in the lobby of Heath High School that day — including Michael Carneal — was a child. It's taken me 25 years to fully appreciate how little I knew on that day. How much of life I had not lived and how far from adult I was in my thinking and my capacity. I'm a different person today than I was on that day … Michael Carneal has spent almost two-thirds of his life incarcerated for his actions as a child,” Holm said. “He's now an adult in prison serving time for the actions of a child. I have to think that, after 25 years, he's a different person than he was that day. When I think of Michael and what he did on December 1, 1997, I can't weigh the sum total of his life by the worst actions of his life on the worst day of my life.”

Now, Holm — who remembers sharing a lunch table and riding the school bus with Carneal — says if mental health experts think he can be successful outside of prison, he should get that chance.

“This is a difficult position for me to take. It's far easier in our society to act out of anger and retribution than empathy. And Michael Carneal has done much to cause this justifiable anger,” he said. “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.”

Missy Jenkins Smith survived the shooting but was left paralyzed from the chest down. She advocated against Carneal’s parole.

“Michael sentenced me to life in a wheelchair without the possibility of parole ever. [His] consequence for killing three girls and physically injuring five others for the rest of their lives was 25 years to life,” Smith said. “He has a chance at 39 years old to be able to leave this prison and be given an attempt at a normal life. Those that were forced to bear the consequences of Michael’s decision are sentenced to life without parole.”

Smith also argued that Carneal — who was diagnosed with a form of paranoid schizophrenia following the shooting — needed to be kept under medical supervision due to his mental illness. Carneal filed an appeal claiming he was too mentally ill to plead guilty in his initial trial in 2007. This was denied by the Kentucky Supreme Court. In 2012, he attempted to withdraw his plea, claiming he was mentally ill at the time he made it. This was also denied.

“I want you to consider how long it has been that he's been taken care of by others. From the age of 14 years old, to his present age of 39. He hasn't had the responsibility to take care of himself, and has been cared for for the past 25 years,” she said. “How could anyone say with confidence, he could do that for the rest of his life at the age of 39?”

Christina Hadley Ellegood also survived the shooting, but her sister Nicole did not. She asked that the board deny Carneal’s request for parole.

“Over the last 25 years, I've had to learn how to deal with a lot and most people will never understand what I've been through. From what I understand, I was the first sibling to survive a school shooting where I lost a sibling. I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” said Ellegood. “I had my world turned upside down because of the actions of Michael. Nicole was given a life sentence. Michael pled to a life sentence, which I believe he should serve out. Nicole does not get a second chance. Why should he?”

Ellegood also requested that, if Carneal was granted parole, that “very strict conditions” be placed on it, including that he not be allowed to have any type of contact with her family and that he would be monitored and required to let the victims know where he's living.
Three other members of Nicole Hadley’s family — her parents, Charles and Gwen, and her brother, Andrew Hadley — also advocated against Carneal being granted parole.

“We, the families of survivors and people that were at the school and the whole community, were given a life sentence by the shooter and didn't have the opportunity to get a second chance or reduced sentence and to be released from the sentence,” said Gwen Hadley.

Nicole’s father, sister and brother also argued that the permanence of Carneal’s actions be taken into account.

“We have missed Nicole's high school graduation, her college graduation, a wedding, her kids, our grandkids, and many birthdays, and holidays together. Everything's gone in an instant, lost forever,” Charles Hadley said. “The murderer has tried to get out of prison in 2007 and 2012. Every time he has causes pain, remembering that day in December, as it is today with this hearing. He has never shown remorse or taken responsibility for what he's done. I believe the murderer should never be let out of prison and should serve the remainder of his life sentence.”

Hadley’s brother was unsure why Carneal’s sentence wasn’t more severe.

“I still don't understand why he even has the option of parole,” he said. “We were not given justice with this sentence.”

Jones, one of the two members of the parole board conducting the hearing, addressed the victims and family members in attendance on the Zoom call, saying she hoped the proceedings hadn’t caused any “undue trauma or stress” and thanking them for showing their strength.

“To the family and the victims of Mr. Carneal, we cannot imagine the pain that you all have endured since this crime occurred. The board values the information that you have shared with us today and we ask only that you trust the board to make the right decision,” Jones said. “Realistically, we know that you have experienced all of that, in the last 25 years and especially leading up to this crime. We want you to know how important of a piece this is to the parole hearing process.”

McCracken County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dan Boaz, who worked in the Commonwealth’s Attorney office at the time of the shooting, also spoke briefly to advocate against Carneal’s parole.

“What Mr. Carneal did … obviously profoundly affected all of the people who were at Heath High School that morning. It profoundly affected the entire community. It shook us to the core, to put it mildly,” said Boaz. “He was a 14-year-old person when he chose to gun down his classmates. As a result of that, the law treated him as an adult — and it continues to treat people who act that way as an adult if they qualify — and Mr. Carneal certainly qualified to be treated as an adult. We are asking that he continue to be treated as an adult, and that he pay for the consequences of his actions, that he be denied parole.”

The board will hear from Carneal when the parole hearing continues at 8 a.m. CST Tuesday morning. If a decision cannot be reached at the end of that meeting, the two-person board will refer the case to the full state parole board, which is expected to meet on Sept. 26.