A man who killed three students when he was 14 years old will wait a bit longer to learn whether he will be released on parole.
Two members of the Kentucky Parole Board were unable to reach a unanimous decision Tuesday in the parole hearing for Michael Carneal, who has served almost 25 years in prison for the 1997 mass shooting at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky.
The full parole board will consider his case September 26 and make a decision then, parole board chairperson Ladeidra Jones said.
Carneal, now 39, pleaded his case Tuesday during the hearing – which was held via video conference. “I’ve had 25 years to prepare for today, and it still doesn’t seem like it’s happening,” Carneal told Jones.
Carneal was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, and a count of first-degree burglary. But Kentucky law requires that minors be considered for parole after 25 years.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Carneal said he has received multiple mental health diagnoses and has long heard voices in his head – including on the day of the mass shooting.
“I was hearing things. And I was extremely hyper-suspicious. And I had felt for years feeling alienated and different,” Carneal said.
He said on December 1, 1997, he heard a voice telling him to “pick up the gun out of the backpack and hold it in front of me and shoot.”
“There’s no justification or excuse for what I did,” Carneal said. “I’m offering an explanation. I realize there’s no excuse for what I did.”
When asked whether he still hears voices in his head, Carneal said yes.
“Most of the time, it’s things that might hurt myself or something like that,” he said. For example, just a few days ago, Carneal said a voice told him to jump off the stairs.
But now, Carneal said, he knows when to ignore such voices.
“I know now that that’s not something that I should do,” he said. “And I’m able to not do it and rationalize that it’s not something that I should do. And what I’m hearing is not real.”
Parole official questions Carneal’s plans
Carneal also spoke generally about his plans to re-enter society if he’s granted parole.
“I plan on living with my parents, and I would like to be independent from them after a couple of years. I realize that there’s a lot of things I would have to do to get there,” he said.
“I plan on getting a job. I’m not really particular about what kind of job I would have. I mean, fast food, anything would be suitable for me,” Carneal said.
“I’ve had jobs in here (while incarcerated) that I’ve maintained – sanitation-type jobs. And I could do that. … Anything, really, as far as employment goes.”
But Jones pressed Carneal on why he didn’t write a letter to the parole board himself, relying instead on letters from his family and attorney.
“We have received a few letters of support on your behalf, as well as a plan submitted by your legal counsel. But I think what’s most important is that the board would have received a letter or a plan from you,” Jones said. “Is there any particular reason you did not submit anything to the board?”
“No, not particularly,” Carneal replied. “I thought everything had been covered in the plan in my parents’ and my family’s letter.”
Jones said it was most important for Carneal “to share with the board why or how you will avoid making the same or similar decision that you made that brought you into the institution.”
“And I’m not sure that in 25 years that you’ve provided us at this point with a real, in-depth plan.”
Carneal said maintaining his mental health care and counseling will be critical if he were to be released on parole. “I see a psychologist and a psychiatrist … I take three psych meds,” he said.
“I’ve learned over the years to accept that help when it’s offered. And sometimes I need to seek it out. And I think that will be very important in this situation … That will be very beneficial.”
Attorney: Carneal had paranoid scizophrenia
His public defender has asked the parole board to remember Carneal was only 14 years old during the mass shooting, was suffering from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and was struggling with bullying and the transition from middle to high school.
In the quarter century since, Carneal “has committed himself to his mental health treatment, to participating in available educational and vocational programs, and to being a helpful and positive person within the prison,” attorney Alana Meyer wrote this month.
“Despite his environment, he has worked hard to better himself and make the best out of his situation.”
Victims and families are split about parole
A victims’ hearing was held Monday, and Carneal faced ample pushback to his requested release – from a local prosecutor, victims’ family members and those who survived the mass shooting outside Heath High School.
Chuck and Gwen Hadley – whose 14-year-old daughter, Nicole Hadley, was one of the youngsters slain that day – addressed the board on Monday, saying they miss Nicole’s smile, sense of humor and “wonderful hugs.”
They want Carneal to spend his life in prison, as he’s never shown remorse or taken responsibility for those he hurt and killed, they told the board.
“We have missed Nicole’s high school graduation, her college graduation, her wedding, her kids, our grandkids and many birthdays and holidays together,” Chuck Hadley told the board.
Christina Hadley Ellegood – who often visits the stone monument memorializing her younger sister, Jessica James and Kayce Steger when she’s having a hard day – found Nicole on the ground after she was shot.
She, too, told the board she opposed parole for Carneal, saying Nicole never got a chance to realize her dreams of graduating as a valedictorian, attending the University of North Carolina, working as a WNBA physical therapist, or running a camp for special needs kids.
“Nicole was given a life sentence. Michael (pleaded) to a life sentence,” she said. “I believe that he should have to spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Nicole does not get a second chance. Why should he?”
But one survivor, whom Carneal shot in the head, told the board he understood why people want to keep him in prison but he would vote to give the convicted murderer another chance.
Survivor Hollan Holm opened his statement recounting the day he was shot: “I was a 14-year-old child. I laid on the floor in the lobby of Heath High School, bled from the side of my head, and believed I was going to die. I said a prayer and readied myself to die.”
It took a dozen staples to repair his head wound, he said, but the mental and emotional scars are more profound. Holm still struggles in crowds, and he’s anxious if he’s seated in a restaurant with his back to the door, he said.
He scans the room for danger and exit routes. Fireworks and popping balloons cause panic, and every school shooting forces him to relive the day he was shot, he said.
But when he thinks of Carneal, he said, he thinks of his oldest daughter, 10, and he can’t imagine holding her to the same standard to which he’d hold an adult.
“If the metal health experts think he can be successful on the outside, he should get that chance,” Holm said, saying he understands the anger people feel. “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 played in the band with Carneal and recalls him being bullied and bullying others before the day she was shot at age 15.
From the wheelchair in which Carneal left her, Smith said she could speak for hours about how she struggles without the use of her legs – getting out bed, bathing, reaching cabinets, entering and exiting cars and the “embarrassment of special accommodations that have to be made wherever I go.”
Where she is supposed to be taking care of her 12- and 15-year-old boys, she said, they are instead caring for her. Yet she won’t be able to dance with them at their weddings.
Attorney says Carneal has shown remorse
In her letter to the parole board, Meyer said her client “has shown deep, genuine remorse and taken responsibility for the shooting.” He has also sought to improve himself, maintaining a treatment program for 20 years, completing his GED and an anger management program, and taking college courses.
Carneal was suffering from the early stages of schizophrenia – which is tough to diagnose in adolescents – at the time of the shooting, the lawyer wrote.
Leaning on US Supreme Court cases indicating juvenile offenders have “greater prospects for reform,” Meyer submitted a re-entry plan showing Carneal would have a great deal of support from his family and medical professionals.
Now housed at the Kentucky State Reformatory northeast of Louisville, Carneal will move in with his parents in Cold Spring, across the state from Paducah, if paroled, according to the re-entry plan presented to the parole board.
His parents will help him with finances, employment, housing and transportation to doctor’s appointments and meetings with his parole officer, the plan says, adding he will be referred to mental health programs in Cold Spring and nearby Erlanger.
CNN’s Nouran Salahieh contributed to this report.