LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A man who killed three classmates at a Kentucky high school in 1997 on Thursday lost his bid to withdraw a guilty plea after a federal appeals court concluded he could have acted sooner to seek a new trial.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that 29-year-old Michael Adam Carneal was competent as early as 2004 and could have challenged the plea then.
Carneal, then a 14-year-old freshman, shot at a school prayer meeting Dec. 1, 1997, at Heath High School in Paducah, killing 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley. Five others were wounded.
The killings, two years before the fatal attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, garnered national attention at a time when mass school shootings were uncommon.
It came two months after a school shooting in Pearl, Miss., that killed three and injured seven. Then, on April 20, 1999, two students attacked Columbine High School, killing 12 students, a teacher and themselves.
The ruling in Carneal’s case came the same day as students in Newtown, Conn., returned to school after 26 people were killed by a gunman on campus in December.
Carneal was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 years. Missy Jenkins Smith of Murray, who survived the shooting but sustained spinal shock, praised the ruling as “good news”
Smith, who has visited Carneal in prison and attended multiple hearings in the case, is waiting for the day 10 years from now when Carneal becomes parole eligible for the first time.
“I’m definitely going to be there when it comes up,” Smith said.
In the unsigned two-page opinion by the appeals court, judges Boyce Martin, Danny Boggs and Curtis Collier found that U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell correctly concluded that Carneal suffered from a mental illness but could function rationally in prison, even when his mental illness raged.
The appeals court relied on Russell’s conclusions. Russell found that Carneal, who is incarcerated at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, could have attacked the guilty plea sooner, but didn’t, so the clock ran out.
“Having had the benefit of oral argument and having carefully considered the record on appeal, the briefs of the parties, and applicable law, we are not persuaded that the district court erred in dismissing Carneal’s petition,” the three judges wrote.
Russell’s ruling in July 2011 dealt only with whether Carneal was mentally ill after going to prison, not with his mental status at the time of the shootings.
“He was able to complete classes, read and understand a fairly complex journal article about juvenile rights in the criminal justice system, obtain the addresses or people he wished to correspond with further about his legal rights, and communicate with the outside world in a remarkably clear and concise manner,” Russell wrote in a 32-page decision.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, in a written statement, expressed gratitude to the prosecutors who “have spent countless hours working to ensure that justice is upheld.”
“I hope this ruling brings some level of comfort to the families who lost loved ones and the victims who are still living with the injuries Carneal inflicted,” Conway said.
Carneal’s attorney, Timothy Arnold, argued that his client’s appeal of his guilty plea was timely and should be allowed to proceed. The Kentucky Attorney General’s office said the appeal came too late in the process and that Carneal’s conviction and life sentence should stand.
Arnold did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday morning.