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Michael Carneal (right) and his attorney in a previous court appearance  

Kentucky school shooter "guilty but mentally ill"

October 5, 1998
Web posted at: 12:58 p.m. EDT (1658 GMT)

PADUCAH, Kentucky (CNN) -- A judge on Monday accepted pleas of guilty but mentally ill from Michael Carneal, 15, who was charged with killing three high school classmates and wounding five others in December 1997.

Carneal, who admitted opening fire with a .22-caliber pistol on a student prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah last Dec. 1, will be sentenced on December 16, Judge Jeff Hines ruled.

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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.

Carneal was charged with three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary for allegedly stealing the gun and other weapons from a local residence.

Defense attorney Tom Osborne told CNN, "Michael's condition from a layman's point of view is that he just doesn't perceive and think like most 14- and 15-year-old young men."

In court Monday, the judge asked Carneal if he understood the pleas and agreed to enter them. He then asked, "You are fine today, in terms of your mental health?" "Yes, sir," Carneal replied.

Three students were killed and three injured in the shooting spree  

Carneal's lawyer said while the boy is suffering from paranoia and a schizophrenia-like personality disorder, he did not believe the mental illnesses affected Carneal's decision to plead guilty.

The plea allows Carneal to receive mental health treatment within the prison system as long as he needs it or until his sentence has been completed, according to prosecutor Tim Kaltenbach.

The three students killed were Nicole Hadley, 14, Kayce Steger, 15, and Jessica James, 17. The families of all three showed up at the McCracken County Courthouse on Monday morning.

A fourth girl, Melissa Jenkins, now 16, is partially paralyzed.

Spectators started to fill the courthouse lobby before the hearing Monday morning. Many among the crowd appeared to be of high-school age.

Witnesses said Carneal opened 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 United States during the past school year.

Correspondent Brian Cabell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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