$36 Million Judgment for Victims of Kentucky High School Shooting

A western Kentucky circuit judge recently awarded $36 million in damages to the victims of the Marshall County High School shooting. The verdict marks a poignant conclusion to a years-long legal battle to hold the shooter accountable to his victims.

Empty high school hallway

ByAnjelica Cappellino, J.D.

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Published on January 26, 2024

Empty high school hallway

What Happened?

On January 23, 2018, then-15-year-old, Gabriel Parker, used his stepfather’s Ruger MK II .22 caliber pistol to shoot into a crowded common area at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky, just before 8 a.m. He killed Ryan Cope and Bailey Holt, who were both 15 years old at the time. Dozens more were injured. Sheriff’s deputies disarmed Parker and took him into custody after the shooting. Parker was charged as an adult. According to a Kentucky State Police detective, Parker was not bullied nor did any one single event compel him to commit the shooting. He did not target anyone in particular but rather, wanted to “break the monotony” of his life and saw the shooting as an “experiment.”

After pleading guilty to two counts of murder and 14 counts of assault, Parker received two life sentences, plus 70 years, in June 2020, and would be eligible for parole in 20 years. The case struck a personal nerve, with the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Dennis Foust, sharing stories of his time as a student at Marshall County High School. The sentencing judge, Marshall Circuit Judge Jamie Jameson, was also a graduate of the school and cried as he spoke to Parker. As the judge stated, “There’s no sense that can be made out of this. As someone who has always been fascinated by psychology, I can’t make any sense of it. I don’t know how you get to the point where you discount the value of life down to the equivalent of a computer game where perhaps you thought you could hit the reset button and undo all of this. Or the other option is you really, truly are just a cold-blooded murderer.”

At sentencing, a former classmate and several parents spoke in court, including the parents of Ryan Cope and Bailey Holt. As Bryan Cope explained: “There’s no reason why his life was ended that day. I ask God to help me see the good in everyone, but I don’t see good when I look at Gabe Parker. I see no conscience, and I see evil.” He continued that, “[w]e don’t know why, we’ll never know why. We just ask God to give us the strength to get through this life and to make this world better.”

Jasen and Secret Holt directly faced Parker when they delivered their compelling statement, chronicling the moments when they first learned their daughter had been killed. As they explain, they now live a life sentence of loneliness and are grateful Parker “will never see the light of day again.”

The Lawsuit

In 2019, the family of Bailey Holt, as well as other victims, brought a lawsuit against Parker, his mother and stepfather, as well as the former Marshall County Schools superintendent, Trent Lovett, who was subsequently granted qualified immunity. The defendants never responded to any of the filed motions or filed an answer to the complaint. The plaintiffs’ counsel noted that the Parker family did not have the kind of money that was being sought in the lawsuit and the victims would likely not receive any damages.

Ultimately, the estate of Bailey Holt was awarded approximately $6.4 million in damages, with each of her parents receiving $2 million. Plaintiff Dalton Keeling was awarded $8.1 million and Mary Bella James and Gage Smock were both awarded $9 million each.

It is unlikely that the plaintiffs will be able to collect these rewards, but the verdict still holds significance, as it prevents Parker’s family from ever profiting from the shooting in light of the judgment against them. If Parker or his family were to ever sell their story or otherwise find themselves wealthier, the plaintiffs would be compensated first. As Sheila Hiestand, plaintiffs’ counsel, explains, “What we don't want to have happen, and what we never want to have happen is to have these families relive this pain through the family or the shooter, profiting from this in some way.” Hiestand also noted that “I could have gotten an award of $100 billion, and it wouldn't have been enough to compensate them for what they've been through.”

About the author

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Anjelica Cappellino, Esq., a New York Law School alumna and psychology graduate from St. John’s University, is an accomplished attorney at Meringolo & Associates, P.C. She specializes in federal criminal defense and civil litigation, with significant experience in high-profile cases across New York’s Southern and Eastern Districts. Her notable work includes involvement in complex cases such as United States v. Joseph Merlino, related to racketeering, and U.S. v. Jimmy Cournoyer, concerning drug trafficking and criminal enterprise.

Ms. Cappellino has effectively represented clients in sentencing preparations, often achieving reduced sentences. She has also actively participated in federal civil litigation, showcasing her diverse legal skill set. Her co-authored article in the Albany Law Review on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines underscores her deep understanding of federal sentencing and its legal nuances. Cappellino's expertise in both trial and litigation marks her as a proficient attorney in federal criminal and civil law.