The families of the three girls shot to death at a Paducah, Ky., high school have agreed to a $42 million settlement from their killer. But they may never see the money.
Michael Carneal opened fire with a .22-caliber pistol in the lobby of Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997, shooting eight teenagers during their morning prayer circle meeting. Jessica James, Kayce Steger and Nicole Hadley were killed. Five other students were wounded. One girl’s wounds have left her paralyzed from the chest down.
Carneal, now 17, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the shootings and is being held at a juvenile detention center in western Kentucky. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole in December 1998.
On Wednesday, attorneys for Carneal offered to settle, and this afternoon plaintiffs’ attorney Mike Breen issued a statement saying the families of James, Steger and Hadley had accepted.
Carneal has no assets and whether the families would be able to collect any money is uncertain. His family’s insurance company, Kentucky Farm Bureau, has insisted in court motions it is not liable for his actions.
Breen acknowledges that it’s not clear where the money will come from.
“That will be the subject matter of a lawsuit against Michael Carneal’s insurance company, Kentucky Farm Bureau,” he said. But he also said that the lawsuit was about more than money.
“The primary goal of the families when they filed suit was to learn as mush as possible about why Michael Carneal shot eight students,” he said.
50 Defendants Were Named The parents of the three girls originally filed a lawsuit that named more than 50 defendants, including the boy’s parents, school administrators and entertainment companies. A judge had subsequently removed everyone but Carneal from the lawsuit.
Breen says the families find today’s settlement bittersweet.
“On the one hand there is a sense of relief because they were becoming anxious about the trial,” which was scheduled to begin on Monday.
“But on the other hand,” he said, “they felt that it was important for the community and for the nation to hear their story in the courtroom.”
Hope for a Precedent The settlement agreement was not yet official. Circuit Judge Will Shadoan, who dismissed the other defendants, was presiding over another case today and had not signed it, his secretary said.
Mark Pierce, a Paducah attorney who represents Carneal, said he believed it would be unethical to comment on the case until the judgment was signed. Another Carneal attorney, Dennis Courtney, did not immediately return a telephone call.
The Paducah shooting was among the first in a string of school shootings nationwide that included Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. In Jonesboro and Littleton, families of the victims filed similar lawsuits against the shooters (in the Jonesboro case), the shooter’s parents, school officials, and even gun manufacturers.
Breen said the families hoped this case set legal precedents for other school shootings, most notably those in Jonesboro and Littleton.
“The shooting rampages at Columbine and Jonesboro made a strong statement about school violence all the more necessary,” Breen said. “Because of this, the families came to believe this case could be used to teach others. This settlement sends a very strong message that all parents and school officials must be vigilant and ever aware of those children who would commit violence upon their classmates.”
The Associated Press and ABCNEWS’ Heidi Caravan contributed to this report.