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1997 Kentucky Child Gunman Has Possibility of Release From Prison

Michael Carneal, the gunman in a 1997 school shooting in West Paducah, Ky., that left three dead and five others wounded, poses a unique question to the rest of the country: What should happen to child assailants who decades later become eligible for release? Carneal was given the possibility of parole after 25 years and is up for a hearing next month — a relatively rare instance in which an assailant in a school shooting has been given a chance at release, the Washington Post reports. The proceeding will be held Sept. 19 and 20 over Zoom to determine whether Carneal, now 39, will be released in November.


The West Paducah school shooting took place 16 months before the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado changed the nation's perception of school safety. In Kentucky, the state had passed a juvenile code in 1986 that allows for life sentences as long as parole is considered after 25 years. At the time, Kentucky prosecutors were given leeway from the state to try teens between the ages of 14 and 17 as adults for serious crimes. But Carneal was charged as a minor. In October 1998, he pleaded guilty but mentally ill — requiring him to receive mental health care while in prison. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. According to the nonprofit Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, at least 25 states and the District of Columbia mandate that young convicts receive a chance at release. Many school shooters never get the chance of parole because they are often killed during the attacks or are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. “We have seen a bit of momentum in America in acknowledging that young people tried with crimes should be given another opportunity, but a school shooting case is going to be the hardest one for a parole board,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor of law at New York University and an expert on parole. “It’s not supposed to be based on the crime itself, but, realistically speaking, it’s very hard for any parole board not to take into account the nature of the initial crime.”

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