Michael Carneal, one of the more infamous school shooters in U.S. history, committed a mass shooting at a high school in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. On the morning of December 1, Carneal, then a 14-year-old high school freshman at Heath High School, killed three of his fellow classmates and injured five others in a deadly shooting spree. The victims had all been holding hands in a Christian prayer circle that was a regular event for some students at the school.
Carneal rode to school in a car driven by his sister and entered Heath High School before classes started, at around 7:45 a.m. He was carrying two shotguns and two rifles wrapped in a large blanket. Carneal also carried a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun in his backpack. He told several people that the blanket was protecting an art project or theatrical prop he was working on. After making his way into a lobby area where he and fellow Christian students regularly gathered to pray together, Carneal reportedly placed a pair of earplugs in his ears and pulled the handgun from his book bag. He opened fire on students in the prayer circle with the handgun.
Carneal fired a total of 11 rounds, killing three girls and injuring three other girls and two boys. One of the five survivors was left paralyzed from the waist down. She has since visited Carneal in prison and given numerous interviews and speeches about school violence and her traumatic experience during and after the incident.
Initial reports indicated that Carneal stopped firing only when he was tackled or confronted by a fellow student. However, it was later reported that Carneal stopped firing on his own. Carneal knew all of his victims and was friends with several of them. When he stopped shooting, he reportedly placed his pistol on the floor and surrendered to the school principal, Bill Bond. Witnesses said he told student Ben Strong, “Kill me, please. I can’t believe I did that.”
The West Paducah episode followed the mass school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, by only two months and contributed to the widespread perception that the United States was in the midst of an epidemic of school violence. Some investigators suspected that other students were in on the plot but backed out of the conspiracy at the last minute. They pointed to the presence of the four long guns wrapped in Carneal’s blanket and to the fact that Carneal never used these weapons in his shooting spree. Some suggested that the rifles and shotguns were intended for use by friends of Carneal, who declined to pick them up during Carneal’s attack. Intensive questioning of Carneal and his friends and acquaintances, however, led investigators to abandon this theory.
Fellow students reported that Carneal liked to wear black clothing and was thought by some classmates to be a Satanist. Several students came forward after the shooting and reported that Carneal had previously threatened to “shoot up” the school, but noted that they had not taken the threats seriously. Most of Carneal’s teachers and fellow students regarded him as typical and well adjusted. He played in the high school band, and his grades were above average. He had never experienced any major disciplinary problems or been arrested. Carneal’s father was a respected attorney in the Paducah area.
Carneal’s precise motivations are unclear, but an investigation revealed that he was frequently bullied and had been subjected to rumors that he was gay. He was slight of build and physically weaker than other students. In the weeks leading up to the December 1997 shooting, Carneal became fascinated with guns. He reportedly stole a .38-caliber handgun belonging to his parents and attempted to sell it. The handgun ended up in the possession of another student who either stole or bought the gun from Carneal with a promise to pay him. Carneal also stole several more firearms from his own home and from the home of a friend. On Thanksgiving Day 1997, Carneal broke into the garage of a friend and took a Ruger .22-caliber pistol, four .22-caliber rifles, a 30-30 hunting rifle, .22-caliber ammunition, 12-gauge shotgun shells, and a set of earplugs.
After Carneal was taken into custody, prosecutors announced that they would seek to prosecute him as an adult instead of as a juvenile. Carneal’s legal team emphasized the fragility of their client’s mental health, arguing that he was in the advanced stages of mental illness at the time of the episode. Carneal was examined by several psychologists, including three psychologists retained by the defense team. After several court hearings, a judge pronounced Carneal competent to stand trial as an adult. He ultimately pled no contest, and was sentenced to three concurrent life sentences for the three murders and an additional 120 years in prison for five counts of attempted murder and burglary.
The Carneal slayings also led to a 1999 lawsuit by the parents of the three murdered girls. The parents sued a number of video game makers, including Nintendo, Sega, and Sony Computer Entertainment; two Internet pornography websites; and the distributors of the 1995 movie The Basketball Diaries–the claim was that their violent depictions inspired Carneal to commit the mass shooting in 1997. All defendants except Carneal himself were dismissed from the lawsuit after federal courts held that any causal link between the media and Carneal’s attacks was unforeseen and speculative. On August 4, 2000, the trial court rendered a judgment against Carneal in the amount of $42 million.
In 2007, when Carneal was 25 years old, he initiated litigation to attempt to reevaluate his sentence. After years of counseling in prison, Carneal claimed he was too mentally ill to plead guilty in 1998. His attorneys argued that new facts had surfaced over the course of Carneal’s prison counseling sessions, indicating that Carneal had been suffering from schizophrenia before, during, and after his shooting spree at Heath High School.
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