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 massacre that left three students dead and five others injured at Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, ended when Carneal put down his weapon and the principal walked him to the school office – a scene that cannot be forgotten. imagine today.
Also stretching today’s imagination – Carneal’s life sentence was guaranteed the possibility of parole after 25 years, the maximum allowable sentence at the time given his age.
A quarter of a century later, Carneal 39 has a parole hearing next week that comes at a very different time in American life – after Sandy Hook, after Uvalde. Today police officers and metal detectors are an acceptable presence in many schools, and even young children are drilled to prepare for active shooters.
“Twenty-five years seemed so long, so far away,” Missy Jenkins Smith recalls 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 has been counting down the time until Carneal is eligible for parole.
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“I would think, ‘It’s been 10 years. How many more years?’ At the 20th anniversary commemoration, I thought, ‘He’s coming up.'”
Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied school violence, said that in the last 25 years there has been a big change in public opinion about school shootings and juvenile punishment. 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 all be locked up,” he said. “But the majority did 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 was a stark reminder of what violence can do, she said.
“Kids who would threaten a school shooting, a terrorist threat, sent me,” she said. Some of them are now adults. “It’s amazing to see what they’ve achieved and how they’ve turned their lives around. They learned from their bad decisions.”
But that doesn’t mean she thinks Carneal should be released. For one thing, she worries that he is not equipped to handle life outside of prison and that he may still harm others. She also doesn’t think it would be right for him to walk free when the people he hurt are still suffering.
“To have a chance at 39. People get married at 39. They have children,” she said. “It’s not right that he should have a normal life, maybe, that the three girls he killed will never have.”
Killed in the shooting were 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James, and 15-year-old Kayce Steger.
Astor said that when it comes to the worst crimes, like many people, he struggles with the question of what age children should be held strictly responsible for their actions. As a class exercise, he asks the students to consider the appropriate punishment for an offender 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?
With no national consensus, you end up with a variety of laws and policies that sometimes lead to very different punishments for almost identical crimes, he said.
The shooting at Heath High School happened on December 1, 1997, the Monday after the Thanksgiving break. 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 were tried as juveniles and released on their 21st birthdays.
Two decades later, in 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At the same time Carneal is being considered for possible release, a jury in Florida is deciding whether Cruz will be executed.
Jenkins Smith has tried for years to understand why Carneal set his classmates on fire that day. She was in the marching band with Carneal, and, before the shooting, “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 that she has forgiven him.
“A lot of people think it’s exempting them from consequences, but I don’t think so,” she said.
Carneal’s parole hearing is scheduled to begin Monday with testimony from those injured in the shooting and next of kin of those killed. Jenkins Smith said she knows of only one victim who supports some form of supervised release for Carneal — less restrictive than prison but not restrictive. On Tuesday, Carneal will make his case from Kentucky State Reform in La Grange. If the board rules against release, they can decide how long Carneal should wait before his next chance at parole.
The parole hearing will be conducted via video conference, but Jenkins Smith said she will position her camera to show her full body so the parole board can see her wheelchair. It will, she said, “be a reminder that everyone who experienced that impact 25 years ago is still dealing with it, for the rest of their lives.”
News Researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report from New York City.