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High court hears arguments on Carneal's competency

LOUISVILLE — Missy Jenkins Smith wheels up to her students, providing both counseling and a stark reminder of what happens when anger goes out of control.

Smith works with emotionally disturbed students in Murray in southwest Kentucky. The wheelchair Smith spends her days in is a constant reminder that she was one of five students wounded and three killed by her onetime classmate and friend, Michael Carneal, on Dec. 1, 1997, at Heath High School in Paducah.

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

Now, the Kentucky Supreme Court will decide what consequences Carneal will face.

The high court heard arguments Thursday about whether Carneal, now 25, was too mentally ill to plead guilty in 1998, when he was 15. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. A decision is expected in three to six months. The court could order a new competency hearing for Carneal, throw out his plea and sentence or uphold the conviction.

During oral arguments at the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law, no one disputed Carneal's guilt. The central disagreement was over Carneal's competence in 1998 and whether his claims that he was hearing voices at the time of the plea and didn't disclose them constitutes new evidence.

Justice Mary Noble asked Assistant Attorney General David Smith how Carneal's claims differ from sex abuse cases where a victim recalls details of the abuse years later. Smith said that in sex abuse cases, it's a victim with little incentive coming forward, not someone who has been convicted of a crime.

"It's human nature to remember things differently years later," Smith said. "In some cases, you have that incentive to remember things differently."

Noble posed a similar question to Carneal's attorney, David Harshaw, but noted that she's also skeptical of Carneal's claim. Harshaw said his client is a "full-blown schizophrenic" whose illness rendered him unable to disclose just how mentally ill he was at the time of the plea.

"The human mind is complicated," Harshaw said.

Missy Jenkins Smith, along with former classmate Kelly Hard-Alsip and Andrew Hadley and Christina Gooch, whose 14-year-old sister Nicole Hadley was killed in the attack, spoke briefly after the arguments. The family of 17-year-old Jessica James attended the hearing, but left without speaking.

Smith, Hard-Alsip and Hadley's siblings said Carneal doesn't deserve another chance at freedom and that they don't believe he's mentally ill.

"He's gotten quite a light sentence," said Hard-Alsip, who was shot by Carneal. "They should not listen to anything he has to say."

The case garnered national attention as one of the first mass school shootings in the United States.

It came just two months after an October 1, 1997 shooting, when Luke Woodham killed three and injured seven in Pearl, Miss. Barely two years later — on April 20, 1999 — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shocked the nation with a paramilitary attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, where they killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves.

Smith took the unusual step of visiting Carneal in prison last summer in an effort to understand why he shot his classmates. During the visit, Smith said, Carneal appeared to be the same person he was 11 years ago — funny, engaging and friendly.

Now, Smith is using her meeting with Carneal, as well as letters he sent her from prison, to work with disturbed students. Her goal is to prevent the type of violence Carneal inflicted — the results of which she deals with even today.

"I share my experience with them. My wheelchair is a pretty strong visual of what violence can do," Smith said. "They connect with that. I help them understand the effects and consequences when they make terrible decisions."