Kentucky school shooter asks for parole in high-stakes hearing

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PADUCAH, Ky. — A Kentucky man who killed three students and injured five more in a school shooting 25 years ago will appear before the state council on Tuesday in a high-stakes hearing that could release him or deny him the chance to ever leave prison. .

Michael Carneal was a 14-year-old freshman on December 1, 1997, when he fired a stolen gun at a preschool prayer group in the lobby of Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky. School shootings were not yet a depressing part of the national consciousness, and Carneal was given the maximum possible sentence for someone his age at the time – life in prison but with the possibility of parole. A quarter of a century later, in the shadow of Uvalde and in a country disgusted by the carnage of mass shootings, Carneal, now 39, will try to convince the probation commission that he deserves to be released.

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His parole hearing began Monday with testimonies from the injured and close relatives of the dead, some of whom had considered Carneal a friend.

Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed by one of Carneal’s bullets and uses a wheelchair, said there are too many “what ifs” to release him. What if he stops taking his medication? What if his medication stops working?

“Continuing his life in prison is the only way his victims can feel comfortable and safe,” she said.

The shooting killed 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Jenkins Smith said it would be unfair to them and their loved ones if Carneal were released.

“They will forever be a 17-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old — only one full decade of life allowed. A result of Michael’s choice,” she said.

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Also testified Monday was Christina Hadley Ellegood, whose younger sister Nicole was killed in the shooting. Ellegood has written about the pain of seeing her sister’s body and having to call their mom to tell her that Nicole was shot.

“I had no one to turn to who understood what I was going through,” she said Monday. “To me it’s not fair for him to be able to roam in freedom when we live in fear of where he might be.”

A two-member panel of the full probation commission hears Carneal’s appeal. They have the option to release him or delay his next parole opportunity for up to five years. If the two cannot agree on those options, they could take the matter to a full board meeting next Monday. Only the entire board has the power to deny Carneal any chance of parole, forcing him to spend the rest of his life in prison.

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Hollan Holm, who was injured that day, spoke on Monday about lying on the floor of the high school lobby, bleeding from his head and believing he was going to die. But he said Carneal was too young to understand the full ramifications of his actions and should have a shot at being released.

“When I think of Michael Carneal, I think of the kid I was on the bus with every day,” he said. “I think about the kid I sat at the lunch table with in third grade. I think about what he could have become if he had had it in him that day to make a different choice or take a different path.”

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