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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.”



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