Fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal is indicted as an adult on three counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder for the shooting of his classmates at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. On December 1, Carneal pulled out a pistol and fired 11 shots into a group of students in the school’s lobby.
By all accounts, Michael Carneal was a normal teenager from a solid family. He was neither exceptionally popular nor a social outcast. On December 1, when his older sister, Kelly, drove him to school, he reportedly claimed that the blanketed bundle on his lap was a prop for a school project; in fact, it contained two rifles and two shotguns. In addition, Carneal was carrying a .22-caliber pistol. The guns had all been stolen from a neighbor’s garage several weeks earlier.
When he arrived at school, Carneal walked toward a before-school prayer meeting that was just breaking up, inserted earplugs into his ears, loaded the .22, and then methodically shot eight students from a distance of 10 feet. Amid the barrage, fellow student Ben Strong convinced Carneal to drop his weapon and held him down until the school’s principal took the gunman away.
When asked what motivated his killing rampage, Carneal only cried and asked authorities to kill him. Later, he claimed that he was inspired by the movie The Basketball Diaries, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Families of the victims filed a $130 million lawsuit against 21 entertainment companies for their alleged role in the tragedy. Among those sued were the makers of the video games Quake and Doom. According to the litigants, Carneal had learned how to shoot accurately from playing these games.
Although charged as an adult, Carneal’s young age made him ineligible for the death penalty. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill, and he was sentenced to life in prison with a possibility of parole in 25 years.
The Paducah community was remarkably kind to Carneal’s family in the wake of the tragedy, offering them condolences and welcoming Kelly back to school after the incident.