CINCINNATI — A man who killed three of his classmates at a Kentucky high school in 1997 is fighting to take back his guilty plea and get a trial, arguing that his schizophrenia made him incompetent and unable to accept responsibility for the crime.
Four days after the 15-year anniversary of the shooting, a three-judge panel with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati heard arguments from convicted shooter Michael Carneal's attorney and the Kentucky Attorney General's Office.
The killings, more than two years before the fatal attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, garnered national attention at a time when mass school shootings were uncommon.
Carneal's attorney, Timothy Arnold, argued that his client's appeal of his guilty plea was timely and should be allowed to proceed. The attorney general's office countered by saying that the appeal came too late in the process and that Carneal's conviction and life sentence should stand.
If the panel finds that the appeal was timely, the case could be sent back to a lower court judge to consider whether Carneal should be allowed to take back his guilty plea. The panel could take months to issue a decision.
Carneal, now 29, opened fire on a Dec. 1, 1997, school prayer meeting in Paducah, killing 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley. Five others were wounded.
It came two months after a school shooting in Pearl, Miss., that killed three and injured seven. Then on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's attack at Columbine killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves.
Arnold said in an interview that Carneal, who was a 14-year-old freshman at the time, was schizophrenic and having delusions when he agreed to plead guilty but mentally ill to murder and attempted murder charges.
Arnold said that Carneal didn't reveal that he had been hallucinating until years later and wasn't competent enough work on an appeal of his guilty plea until late 2003. The appeal was filed in June 2004.
Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Ken Riggs argued that Carneal took far too long to file his appeal, saying that he proved he had achieved a working level of competency in 2002 in the form of letters to his psychologist and others.
Riggs argues the appeal should have been filed that year.
"Mr. Carneal knew full well that he had a right to file an appeal if he wanted one," Riggs said, adding that Carneal wrote about complex legal theories and discussed his case in the letters.
"This is not the mind of a person who is so far removed from reality that he couldn't put pen to paper and articulate the fact that, 'Hey, there's something wrong with the way my case was handled, my attorney was ineffective, and maybe I was insane at the time but otherwise not criminally responsible,'" he said.
Riggs emphasized to the judges the seriousness of the decision before them.
"People died when Mr. Carneal walked into his high school and singlehandedly opened fire," he said.
Last year, Carneal testified about his hallucinations and schizophrenia, saying that he was commanded to shoot his fellow students by delusions in the form of voices he called "the danes."
He said that he didn't remember pulling the trigger and only realized what he had done when he saw one of the teens on the ground bleeding.
"I still have nightmares about it," he testified. "I did these things to all these people. I wish I could take it back, but I don't know how."