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Ky. school shooter seeks 2nd chance

LOUISVILLE — A high school shooter who killed three classmates and wounded five others is asking Kentucky's Supreme Court for another chance.

Michael Carneal, now 25, claims he was too mentally ill to plead guilty in 1998 to going into Heath High School in west Paducah and shooting eight students gathered for an informal prayer service. He is serving a sentence of life without a chance of parole for at least 25 years for the shooting Dec. 1, 1997, when he was 14.

Carneal's case is back in the spotlight because last year the Kentucky Court of Appeals sent it back to McCracken County Circuit Court to decide whether he should be granted a new hearing. The ruling said if Carneal is determined to have been incompetent when he pleaded guilty, he should be allowed to enter another plea or go to trial.

Prosecutors appealed, setting up the Kentucky Supreme Court's hearing, scheduled for Sept. 11. The Supreme Court will decide whether Carneal should get a new competency hearing and trial.

Five psychologists examined Carneal before his 1998 guilty plea and determined that he was competent and understood the consequences, according to court records. Three were hired by Carneal's attorneys.

"Many factors go into whether anyone pleads guilty. Here, one of the factors that Carneal relied upon was illusory," said Tim Arnold, one of Carneal's public defenders.

Prosecutors say Carneal was competent and his plea was backed up by evidence.

"Carneal and his experts can change their stories all they want, but they cannot make substantial evidence disappear," Assistant Attorney General David Smith said.

The case has brought back memories for Missy Jenkins Smith, 26, who has been in a wheelchair since the shooting with a condition known as spinal shock. Smith plans to attend the hearing at the University of Louisville law school.

Smith visited Carneal in prison in July 2007 and came away feeling that her former classmate was doing better but still belongs in prison.

"I'm sentenced for my life. I still have to deal with the consequences of his choice," said Smith, who has forgiven Carneal. "He needs to deal with the consequences of his choices."

Former Heath High principal Bill Bond said Carneal should serve his sentence for killing Nicole Hadley, 14, Jessica James, 17, and Kayce Steger, 15.

"Anyone who would take a gun ... and shoot classmates, obviously, there's some mental illness there," said Bond, who now counsels principals for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Does that give you a pass on that crime? I think that was decided nine years ago."

Bond wasn't hurt in the shootings, but he carries an emotional scar from watching three students die. He remains angry enough that he wouldn't speak Carneal's name during a recent interview.

"He may be a different person, but the lives he took, they're dead forever. Those girls are dead forever," said Bond, who has no plans to attend the hearing or see Carneal. "I recall the names of the girls who died very often. His name never crosses my lips. I never use his name."