A teen-ager pleaded guilty but mentally ill Monday for opening fire on schoolmates taking part in a prayer session, killing three students and injuring five others.
McCracken Circuit Judge Jeff Hines set a sentencing date of Dec. 16 for Michael Adam Carneal of Paducah, the 15-year-old charged with the shootings at Heath High School in West Paducah last Dec. 1.
Under a plea arrangement, the judge agreed to accept the pleas on condition that the maximum penalty - life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years - would be imposed.
"It's been a difficult case for everyone involved," Commonwealth's Attorney Tim Kaltenbach said after the hearing.
The slightly built, bespectacled Carneal told the judge that he understood the pleas and had agreed to enter them.
"You are fine today, in terms of your mental health?" Hines asked Carneal. "Yes, sir," Carneal replied.
Hines then directed the question to defense attorney Tom Osborne. The lawyer said while Carneal is suffering from paranoia and a schizophrenia-like personality disorder, he did not believe the mental illnesses were affecting the defendant's decision.
Prosecutors and the victims' families had opposed the idea of having Carneal plead guilty but mentally ill. Such a murder plea carries a life term with the possibility of parole in as little as 12 years, while a verdict of guilty to murder without the finding of mental illness carries a term of life with parole possible only after 25 years.
With the plea agreement, the prosecutor said, "He's definitely going to serve 25 years."
The families of the victims were in the courtroom for Carneal's guilty pleas, but were not immediately available for comment afterward.
Carneal, wearing a bulletproof vest, was whisked by McCracken County sheriff's deputies into a side door of the courthouse about an hour before the pretrial hearing was to begin. Spectators started to fill the courthouse lobby before the hearing. Many among the crowd appeared to be of high-school age.
Carneal was charged with opening fire in the high school lobby as the prayer meeting was breaking up. All of the victims were members of the prayer group. It was one of a series of school shootings that rocked the nation during the past school year.
Killed were 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley. Another student, Melissa Jenkins, who was 15 at the time, was left paralyzed from the chest down. The prayer group's leader, Ben Strong, a pastor's son who was then 17, was credited with preventing more bloodshed by persuading the shooter to stop firing.
Carneal was charged as an adult with three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. He allegedly stole the .22-caliber pistol used in the shootings and four other guns from a home.
Written by James Prichard