By TRAVIS LOLLER
When 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on his classmates during a prayer meeting before school in 1997, school shootings were not yet part of the national consciousness. The carnage that left three dead and five others injured at Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, ended when Carneal put down his gun and the principal accompanied him to the school office – a scene which seems unimaginable today.
Also stretching the imagination of today – Carneal’s life sentence guaranteed the possibility of parole after 25 years, the maximum sentence allowed at the time given his age.
A quarter of a century later, Carneal turns 39 with a parole hearing next week that comes at a very different time in American life — after Sandy Hook, after Uvalde. Today, police and metal detectors are an accepted presence in many schools, and even kindergartners are trained to prepare for active shooters.
“Twenty-five years seemed so long, so far away,” Missy Jenkins Smith recalled thinking at the time of 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 counted the time until Carneal was eligible for parole.
“I was like, ‘It’s been 10 years. How many more years? At the 20th anniversary memorial, I thought, “It’s coming.”
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 punishment juveniles had changed a great deal over the past 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 imprisoned.
“Today they would have all been locked up,” he said. “But the majority continued to do good things.”
Jenkins Smith knows firsthand 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 threatened school shootings, terrorist threats, were referred to me,” she said. Some are now adults. “It’s great to see what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve changed their lives. They learned from their bad decisions.
But that doesn’t mean she thinks Carneal should be released. On the one hand, she fears that he is not equipped to handle life outside of prison and that he could still harm others. She also doesn’t think it would be right for him to be free while the people he hurt are still suffering.
“So he has a chance at 39. People get married at 39. They have kids,” she said. “It’s not fair for him to have a normal life that those three girls he killed will never have.”
Nicole Hadley, 14, Jessica James, 17, and Kayce Steger, 15, were killed in the shooting.
Astor said when it comes to the worst crimes, like many people, he struggles with the question of at what age children should be held strictly accountable for their actions. As part of a class exercise, he asks his students to think about the appropriate punishment for a bully 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 vastly different sentences for nearly identical crimes, he said.
The shooting at Heath High School 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 shot and killed four classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas. They injured nine other children and one adult. Both men were tried as minors and released on their 21st birthday.
Two decades later, in 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At the same time that Carneal is being considered for possible release, a Florida jury decides whether to sentence Cruz to death.
Jenkins Smith tried for years to figure out why Carneal opened fire on his comrades that day. She was in the band with Carneal, and before filming, “I loved being around him because he made 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.
“A lot of people think that absolves him of the consequences, but I don’t think so,” she said.
Carneal’s parole hearing is due to begin on Monday with testimony from those injured in the shooting and relatives of those who were killed. Jenkins Smith said she only knew of one victim who supported some form of supervised release for Carneal – less confining than prison but not unlimited freedom. On Tuesday, Carneal will present his case from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. If the board decides against release, it can decide how long Carneal should wait before his next chance for parole.
The parole hearing will be held via video link, 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 suffered this impact 25 years ago is still dealing with it, for the rest of their lives”.
Press researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report from New York.