BY JAMES PRICHARD
The Associated Press
PADUCAH, Ky. Michael Carneal, the teen-ager who opened fire on a group of praying classmates at their high school, killing three students and injuring five others, was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison, with no chance for parole for at least 25 years.
Many victims and relatives were allowed to speak during the emotional sentencing hearing for Mr. Carneal. Many of them hugged and comforted one another and cried together when it was over.
As a mother, my life has forever been changed, Gwen Hadley, the mother of one of the slain students, told the court. My family is no longer whole.
Mr. Carneal, 15, pleaded guilty but mentally ill Oct. 5 to three counts of murder and six other charges related to the shooting at Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997.
Using a .22-caliber semiautomatic handgun that he took to the West Paducah school that day, he opened fire on a student prayer group that meets each morning in the lobby.
Killed were students Nicole Hadley, Jessica James and Kayce Steger. A fourth student, Melissa Missy Jenkins, was paralyzed from the waist down.
Mr. Carneal spent most of the time Wednesday quietly sitting in the same position at the defense table hunched over, hands clasped in his lap, looking straight down. His parents, John and Ann Carneal, sat at the front of the courtroom.
The boy's sullen expression didn't change after McCracken Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hines sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. The sentence was the maximum penalty a juvenile can receive in Kentucky after conviction in an adult court.
Miss Jenkins expressed anger, confusion and sadness at the tragedy.
I don't have any bad feelings toward you, she said to Mr. Carneal. I'm just upset that this happened.
Her twin sister, Mandy, who witnessed the shooting, told of being more frightened now when alone.
I constantly remember the times when things were normal, when Missy was walking and they were alive, she said.
Mandy Jenkins also said she had forgiven Mr. Carneal.
I forgive him, she said. I know he needs help.
Defense psychologist Dewey Cornell, a faculty member at the University of Virginia, also spoke during the sentencing hearing. He said Mr. Carneal suffers from a form of chronic and intermittent depression and from a schizophrenia-like disorder.
With treatment, Mr. Carneal could someday get better, Dr. Cornell said. The psychologist also said Mr. Carneal appeared to be very remorseful.
Of the dead girls' six parents, five spoke during the hearing, including Joe James, who called Mr. Carneal a spoiled brat.
Mr. James recalled how he sometimes forgets, more than a year after the shootings, that his daughter Jessica is no longer alive.
Though my mind says she is gone, my heart still misses her enough to sometimes include her in my plans, he said.
The parents of the slain girls filed a civil lawsuit Dec. 2, one day after the one-year anniversary of the shootings. It seeks unspecified monetary damages from 45 defendants, including Mr. Carneal, his parents, and certain school administrators, teachers and students.
Mr. James and Mrs. Hadley both told the court that the deaths of their children led them to seek clinical help for depression.