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August 28, 2022

Grappling with parole possibilities a quarter-century after horrific school shooting by young teen

The Washington Post has this compelling new piece on what would appear to be the first modern teen school shooter now about to get parole consideration 25 years after his crime.  I recommend the article in full, and it is headlined "A school shooting shattered a town in 1997. Now the gunman could get parole."  Here are excerpts:

At first, Missy Jenkins Smith thought the sound of gunfire at her Kentucky high school was a bad joke.  Her prayer group had just said, “Amen,” and their day was about to begin.  Then one of her classmates fell to the floor, shot in the head. Another student was hit. Then another.  And suddenly, the 14-year-old boy wielding a Ruger .22 fired seven bullets indiscriminately toward the teens gathered inside Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving break....

The attack upended the small town of West Paducah, in what was then a rarity in the United States: a school shooting. Three students — Nicole Hadley, 14; Jessica James, 17; and Kayce Steger, 15 — were killed and five others wounded. Michael Carneal pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.  But under Kentucky law, the teenager who claimed to have been bullied was given the possibility of parole in 25 years....

Carneal is up for a hearing next month in what family members of the deceased, survivors and experts say is among the first instances that an assailant in a school shooting has a chance at being released.  The proceeding will be held Sept. 19 and 20 over Zoom to determine whether Carneal, now 39, will be released in November.

The prospect of Carneal potentially getting released has reopened wounds for those who still carry the pain from a shooting largely forgotten by America.  The case also presents a unique question as school shootings continue to afflict the nation: What should happen to child assailants who decades later become eligible for release?

Privately, survivors and families of the victims in Kentucky have grappled with whether and how to forgive him — and if the pain he has caused makes that even possible....

The West Paducah attack was among the first school shootings to rock the country — unfolding 16 months before the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado changed the perception of classroom safety. “When Carneal did what he did, he ripped the veil off that feeling of security in school,” said Assistant McCracken County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jamie Mills, “and, obviously, we have not been able to get that back.”...

In Kentucky, the state passed a juvenile code in 1986 that allows for life sentences as long as parole is considered after 25 years.  At the time, Kentucky prosecutors were given leeway from the state to try teens between the ages of 14 and 17 as adults for serious crimes. But Carneal was charged as a minor.  And in October 1998, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill — requiring him to receive mental health care while in prison.  He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Carneal has repeatedly challenged his guilty plea, arguing in 2007 that he was too mentally ill to submit the plea and pushing for it to be withdrawn altogether in 2012.  Both efforts were rejected....

Dan Boaz, the commonwealth’s attorney for McCracken County, said his goal is to make sure Carneal remains “incarcerated for as long as he lives.”  Although it’s unclear how the Kentucky Parole Board — a mix of appointees from former Republican governor Matt Bevin and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear — will act, the bar for giving a school shooter parole is much harder, given the regularity of shootings in America.

“We have seen a bit of momentum in America in acknowledging that young people tried with crimes should be given another opportunity, but a school shooting case is going to be the hardest one for a parole board,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor of law at New York University and an expert on parole.  “It’s not supposed to be based on the crime itself, but, realistically speaking, it’s very hard for any parole board not to take into account the nature of the initial crime.”

August 28, 2022 at 01:16 PM | Permalink


He killed 3 and wounded 5 students in a high school. On the other hand, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill, which is a mitigating factor. Kentucky's parole board is traditionally very conservative. Two years ago, the Ky. Parole Board let the son of a friend of mine die in custody from a malignant brain tumor (an aggressive, fast growing glioblastoma), rather than release him to die with his family at home two months later. He had killed someone during an armed robbery at age 20 (or so). The Ky. Dept. of Corrections had paid for brain surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, and then paid for chemotherapy. But the tumor returned and grew. The Medical Director at his prison and his Warden recommended him for special medical parole, but the Parole Board denied it. The Board pointed out that his first chance at regular parole (25 years, just like the inmate in your story) was only 3 months away. Then, at his 25-year parole consideration, the Board denied him, even though he was very sick and terminally ill. His family was shocked. A few months later, his Warden called his Mother to say that her son was within a few days of death at a Louisville hospital and already in a coma, but offered to let her go sit with him and hold his hand during what turned out to be the last 2 days of his life. She even posted pics of her son on Facebook, with tubes and I.V.s coming out everywhere. Thus, I do not expect that the Ky. Parole Board will let this killer of 3 out at 25 years. They will defer him for a period of years (5?), which in Ky. is referred to as receiving a "flop". He will probably get out eventually, but in Kentucky it is unlikely to be upon his initial 25-year consideration.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Aug 28, 2022 6:07:41 PM

There is a big issue nationally about these post-Miller parole hearing (technically since this offender did not get LWOP, it is not a Miller parole hearing) about what is required for a reasonable opportunity to be released on parole. My take has always been that Miller recognized the horror of the original crime but also recognized that it could be the product of youth and that the offender should have a chance to demonstrate that they have changed. Thus, for this hearing, the question should be what has this defendant done over the past twenty-five years (behavior in prison including violations and program and treatment) to demonstrate that he has been rehabilitated and is no longer a risk to society. The underlying crime is not irrelevant (as it establishes the baseline of where defendant was twenty-five years ago), but the twenty-five years is deemed to be adequate punishment meaning that the issues now are incapacitation and rehabilitation rather than retribution and deterrence.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 29, 2022 10:32:40 AM

I represented a client at 7 unsuccessful parole hearings He had committed a horrible murder at age 18 and got life with possiblity of parole after 20 years. Victim's mother understandably showed up at every parole hearing and vigorously agued against parole. After the mom died, client was finally paroled after 35 years incarceration.

Posted by: anon12 | Aug 29, 2022 11:30:15 AM

While tangential to this post, Eighth Circuit just issued an opinion in Brown v. Precythe (https://ecf.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/22/08/192910P.pdf) concerning parole hearing procedures for juvenile offenders. Gist of majority opinion (court sitting en banc) is that Miller and Montgomery are satisfied if juvenile offenders are considered for parole on the same basis as adult offenders serving life with parole sentences and do not require different procedures.

Posted by: tmm | Aug 30, 2022 12:04:15 PM

Thanks for flagging that opinion, tmm. I just got a new post up on it.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 31, 2022 3:25:49 PM

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