A man serving a life prison sentence for killing three classmates in a Kentucky high school shooting that shocked the nation in 1997 testified Wednesday that he was commanded to attack by delusions in the form of voices he called "the danes."
Michael Adam Carneal, now 27, testified in court about his long-running delusions and hallucinations, saying "the danes" threatened to kill him if he didn't carry out the assault Dec. 1, 1997, on a school prayer meeting that also wounded five other classmates.
Carneal testified on the third day of a hearing about his mental state at the time of the attack and when he pleaded guilty, but mentally ill in 1998. Carneal now claims his mental illness rendered him not responsible for the shooting and made him incompetent to plead guilty. Attorneys for Carneal argued he was mentally unstable at the time of his plea and are bidding to clear a legal path to withdraw that plea and possibly take the case to trial.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell has not set a deadline for ruling. Hearing testimony focused on whether Carneal was too mentally ill to challenge his plea in the years immediately after he went to prison.
The hearing also marked the first time many of the victims' families had heard Carneal speak about the shootings at Heath High School near Paducah in western Kentucky when Carneal was 14.
Prompted by Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Ken Riggs, Carneal apologized to the families seated in the gallery Wednesday.
"I apologize. I'm sorry," Carneal said in a flat tone.
For the families of 17-year-old Jessica James, 15-year-old Kayce Steger and 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, Carneal's explanations and apology fell short.
Joe James, the father of Jessica, said Carneal's apology did not seem sincere, adding "It seemed very rehearsed, like he had a lot of time to figure out what he was going to say."
Steger's mother, Sabrina Steger, said hearing Carneal's testimony was difficult to listen to.
Much of Carneal's five hours of testimony focused on his hallucinations and delusions. He described "the danes" as adult male voices and men wearing one-piece white work uniforms. Carneal said, during one running commentary from the delusions, that a voice he heard sounded like ESPN basketball announcer Dick Vitale.
Carneal said the danes worked for the CIA and would harm him and his family if he did not comply with their commands. Carneal said an angelic figure he called "Goose" revealed the existence of "the danes" to him, and that he was the only living person who was aware of them.
Carneal also described the day of the shooting, saying the voices told him, "Do it for yourself."
Upon arriving at school, Carneal said he got out of his sister's car and headed toward the entrance when the voices spoke to him. After his sister had gone into the school, he went back to the car, retrieved guns he had left in the trunk and made his way to the school lobby, where the prayer group was meeting.
Carneal said he went through with the shooting because "the danes" had threatened to kill his family.
"I don't understand it," he said. "It made sense at the time. It was just something I had to do to save myself and my family."
Carneal said he doesn't remember actually pulling the trigger, but stopped firing after a few seconds when he saw a bullet hole in the wall and his head cleared. At that point, Carneal said, he realized what he had done and he saw one victim on the ground.
"I still have nightmares about it," he said. "I did these things to all these people. I wish I could take it back, but I don't know how. I don't know how to change things in the past."
Carneal said the last time the voices spoke to him was Tuesday, as his father, John Carneal, testified. Michael Carneal said the voices taunted him as his father spoke of trying to help his son in prison.