PADUCAH — A man serving a life sentence for killing three classmates in a Western Kentucky school shooting said he was commanded in a series of delusions and hallucinations to commit the attack.
Michael Adam Carneal, now 27, testified Wednesday that voices in the delusions threatened to kill him if he didn't carry out the attack.
Carneal's testimony came on the third day of a hearing about his mental state at the time of the Dec. 1, 1997, attack and at his guilty plea in 1998. Carneal claims that his mental illness rendered him not responsible for the shooting and made him incompetent to plead guilty.
Carneal, then 14, killed three classmates and wounded five others at Heath High School near Paducah in an attack that shocked the country.
Attorneys for Carneal returned to court to argue that he was mentally unstable when he pleaded guilty but mentally ill in 1998 — bidding to clear a legal path to withdraw that plea and take the case to trial. Steger and more than a half-dozen other survivors and relatives of those killed looked on Tuesday on the second day of testimony.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell is hearing testimony focused on a single issue: whether Carneal, 27, was too mentally ill to challenge his plea in the years immediately after he went to prison. Russell has not set a deadline for ruling in the case.
If Russell rules in Carneal's favor, it would open the door for Carneal to challenge his guilty plea on the grounds that he was too incompetent to accept responsibility for the shooting. Should Russell rule against Carneal, he would be able to appeal the case to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The hearing is the first time that many of the survivors and slain students' families have seen Carneal since he pleaded guilty and began serving a life sentence with a chance at parole starting in 2023 for the attack, in which Steger; Jessica James, 17; and Nicole Hadley, 14, were killed.
On Tuesday, Dr. Diane Schetky, a psychiatrist who examined Carneal and reviewed his record in prison, said he's not criminally responsible for the shooting.
"Michael was seriously mentally ill at the time of his crime," Schetky testified.
Schetky said bullying at school probably affected Carneal's mental illness and became part of his delusions.
Schetky also said Carneal sought to change his medicines in 2009 and stop taking them entirely a year later so the delusions would come back. Schetky said that's not uncommon in paranoid schizophrenia.
"In this case, I think it's a sad commentary on his ability to deal with the real world," Schetky said. "The real world is too painful."
Schetky's testimony mirrored that of Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia clinical psychologist, who testified Monday, when the judge heard diagnoses of depression and paranoid schizophrenia.
Schetky said Carneal still suffers from delusions and hallucinations in the form of voices he calls "the danes," which Carneal described to doctors as a CIA-linked group that controlled the world, and a fear of monsters in vents.
Schetky said "the danes" commanded Carneal to shoot his classmates and threatened to kill him if he didn't carry out the attack. Carneal thought he could escape "the danes" by going to prison, Schetky said.
"He was afraid to disobey them," Schetky said.
Throughout his questioning Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Christian Miller sought to portray Carneal as someone faking mental illness to avoid responsibility for the attacks. Miller noted that, at times, Carneal has appeared lucid and completely in command, while at other times, he said he was under control of "the danes."
Carneal's father, retired attorney John Carneal, and his sister, Kelly Firesheets, told Russell on Tuesday that their visits with Carneal in prison were hit-and-miss. He said Carneal would be lucid at times, then quiet and vigilantly looking about the visiting room at others.
"It's been kind of like a roller coaster," John Carneal said, who nodded to his son as he walked to the witness stand.
As the pair testified, Michael Carneal wiped his eyes beneath is glasses, sniffled loudly and blushed, his shaved head and face turning bright red.
For Steger and Joe James, the father of Jessica James, the medical and family testimony didn't lessen their grief or make up for the lack of an apology, even more than a decade later.
"It's hard to be in the same room with my daughter's murderer day after day," Steger said. "I have to do this for my daughter."