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Kentucky school shooter made efforts to vacate guilty plea

Michael Carneal, now 29, says schizophrenia made him incompetent to accept responsibility for the killings of three classmates in Paducah when he was 14 years old.

Michael Carneal, now 29, says schizophrenia made him incompetent to accept responsibility for the killings of three classmates in Paducah when he was 14 years old.


Nearly 25 years after he killed three students and injured five more in a shooting at a McCracken County high school, Michael Carneal is being considered for parole this week.

Carneal, 39, has been in prison for more than two decades after pleading guilty to three counts of murder and other charges, agreeing to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. But in the time since his conviction, Carneal has attempted to have his guilty plea vacated, arguing he wasn’t mentally competent to plead guilty at the time.

Those efforts weren’t successful, and Carneal has continued to wait in state prison for his parole eligibility date.

Here’s what we know about Carneal’s court case, and how state and federal courts have responded to his efforts to vacate his guilty plea since the deadly shooting in 1997.

How the shooting unfolded, according to Carneal

In testimony at his parole hearing Tuesday morning, Carneal said his the lead-up to the deadly shooting inside Heath High School began on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1997, when he went into a neighbor’s garage and stole firearms and ammunition out of the home. In addition, Carneal told parole board members he took a firearm from his father.

When he arrived at the school on Dec. 1, 1997, Carneal said he had one pistol in his backpack and multiple shotguns wrapped in a blanket. He told those who asked that the items concealed in the blanket were for “an English project,” which they accepted as an answer.

“I got to the lobby and set them down, and stood around for a while and stood there and then went and got the gun out of the backpack and held it in front of me,” he said. “I don’t remember firing the gun or how many times I fired. The next thing I remember is people laying on the ground.”

He said during the hearing he had thoughts of taking guns into empty schools or malls, and shooting them. He also said his intention was to cause people to “run around.”

Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger. Among those injured was Missy Jenkins Smith, who was paralyzed after she was shot by Carneal and uses a wheelchair. Other victims were Shelley Schaberg, Kelly Hard Alsip, Hollan Holm, and Craig Keene.

Michael Carneal talks about his crime of shooting fellow students at Heath High school in 1997 when he was 14 years old, during an interview Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 at the Kentucky State Reformatory near La Grange, Ky. Carneal, who was 19 years old at the time of this photo, said he never looked at who he was shooting and didn’t know who was shot until he read it in the paper. (AP Photo/Courier-Journal, Keith Williams) KEITH WILLIAMS AP

Why Kentucky school shooter has a chance at parole

Carneal was convicted on three charges of murder, five counts of attempted murder and first-degree burglary on Dec. 21, 1998. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill and accepted the “statutory maximum” punishment: life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years, according to court records.

Throughout the court proceedings leading up to the sentencing, Carneal was ordered to participate in mental health evaluations, according to court records. He claimed he heard voices prior to, and the day of the shooting, according to court records.

He had originally pleaded not guilty, but was advised by his counsel on Oct. 5, 1998, to enter a plea of guilty but mentally ill to all of his charges. At the time, state prosecutors objected to this and argued the victims’ “overwhelming” opposition, according to court documents.

Five days later on Oct. 10, 1998, prosecutors came back with an offer to let Carneal plead guilty but mentally ill, as long as Carneal took the maximum penalty.

Carneal accepted this deal and pleaded guilty via an “Alford plea.” He was sentenced on Dec. 16, 1998. As a teenager, he was taken to an institution with the Department of Juvenile Justice until his 18th birthday on Nov. 1, 2001. He was then transferred to another institution with the Department of Corrections.

Shooter’s attorneys: Carneal wasn’t mentally fit to plead guilty

At the time of his initial court proceedings, Carneal underwent several mental health evaluations by court appointed psychiatrists.

Dr. Diane Schetky and Dr. Dewey Cornell noted unusual patterns of behavior that predated the shootings. Carneal said he had “stupid thoughts” that “there were people under the bed who were going to cut me,” according to court records.

In 1998, the two doctors concluded Carneal had features of Schizotypal Personality Disorder, but that Carneal’s condition fluctuated over time and he was not fully cooperative in describing his symptoms. The doctors said it was possible he was in the early stages of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, according to court records.

Dr. Cornell ultimately concluded that based on the information he could obtain, Carneal was mentally ill, but that his mental illness did not rise to either the level needed to negate criminal responsibility or the level needed to effect competency,” an attorney for Carneal wrote in an appeal to a federal court.

However, when Carneal turned 18 in 2001, he was transferred from a juvenile facility to an institution operated by the Department of Corrections. Here, he was given stronger psychiatric medication. Court documents state this allowed him to become more aware of his symptoms, and open up to doctors during evaluations.

In 2003, the doctors who originally evaluated Carneal concluded he was suffering from paranoid delusions much more than they originally thought, and due to the paranoid schizophrenia, he lacked judgment on the seriousness of his crimes and was acting in response to command hallucinations that he was not able to resist, according to court records.

Doctors said this new evidence was able to support an insanity defense, according to court records.

This prompted Carneal to file a motion on June 1, 2004, to vacate the previous judgment on the grounds that there was newly discovered evidence pertaining to his mental health, and led him and his counsel to believe he was unfit or incompetent to stand trial or plead guilty.

The McCracken County Circuit Court denied this motion on June 30, 2004, citing it was not filed in a timely manner. Carnael appealed to the state Court of Appeals, according to court records.

The Court of appeals said the motion was filed timely and said there were doubts of his competence to plead guilty, court records show. The McCracken Circuit Court ruling was vacated.

That same year, The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the Kentucky Court of Appeals’ decision to grant a new hearing for Carneal. They found that Carneal and his counsel had not timely filed his post-conviction action as to his incompetency claim.

In 2008, after much back and forth between counsel and the courts, the Kentucky Supreme Court rejected Carneal’s motion.

According to court records, Carneal utilized his final appeal in June 2013, when he filed a claim in federal court. That appeal was denied, according to court records, and Carneal continued to wait out his parole eligibility date at the Kentucky State Reformatory.

McCracken County, Ky. Sheriff’s deputies and juvenile officers hustle Michael Carneal (covered by jacket), the 14-year-old accused killer of three Heath High School students, into a car for transport to a holding facility on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1997. (AP Photo/The Paducah Sun, Barkley Thieleman) BARKLEY THIELEMAN AP

What will parole board consider when ruling on Carneal’s release?

As of this month, Carneal has served 24 years and nine months in prison, making him eligible for parole in November.

Carneal’s case came up for consideration by the parole board this week.

His parole hearing began Monday morning before state Parole Board Chair Ladeidre Jones and member Larry Brock. After a two-day hearing process that included testimony from victims, victims’ families and Carneal himself, James and Brock have referred his case to the full parole board, which will meet Monday at 8:30 a.m.

Ed Monahan, a retired Kentucky public advocate, told the Herald-Leader that it’s typical for a parole board to consider several factors when looking at a case. They’ll evaluate what the person did, their degree of remorse and whether or not they think the person will commit additional offenses, among other factors.

In Carneal’s case, his age at the time of the crime could play a factor.

“I would expect the fact that someone was a minor would be a factor,” Monahan said. “It’s pretty clear that the frontal lobes of minors aren’t fully formed until their — the science now says maybe the mid 20, and that’s where the reflective, decision making judgement functions of the brain are.”

The parole board could decide to grant Carneal parole or defer his case. If an inmate has their case deferred, the parole board could decide to push it back a certain amount of time, meaning Carneal would have to wait that amount of time before being considered for parole again.

The parole board could also give Carneal a total deferment, Monahan said, meaning he would have to serve out the rest of his life sentence.

This story was originally published September 23, 2022 9:51 AM.

Chris Leach is a breaking news reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in September 2021 after previously working with the Anderson News and the Cats Pause. Chris graduated from UK in December 2018.
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Taylor Six is the criminal justice reporter at the Herald-Leader. She was born and raised in Lexington attending Lafayette High School. She graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 2018 with a degree in journalism. She previously worked as the government reporter for the Richmond Register.

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