Harvard University has rescinded its offer of early admission to what had seemed to be a perfect candidate after learning that she had killed her mother five years ago.
The candidate, Gina Grant, 19, is a straight-A student, captain of her school tennis team, and she has taught biology to underprivileged sixth- and seventh-graders in Cambridge, Mass. But in 1990, in what Grant said was attempt to defend herself from an alcoholic parent and what prosecutors called a vicious murder, Grant bludgeoned her mother to death in Lexington, S.C.
A spokesman for Harvard, Joe Wrinn, declined to discuss the case, citing the university’s policy of protecting the privacy of applicants. In a written statement, Wrinn said only that Harvard from time to time withdraws admission offers “if a student engages in behavior that brings into question honesty, maturity or moral character” or “in the event any part of the application contains misrepresentations.”
In a statement Friday, Grant said she was “deeply disappointed” with Harvard’s action, since she had served her sentence for the crime, six months in a locked juvenile center in South Carolina, and because she believed “that the promise of the juvenile justice system” is a fresh start.
“I deal with this tragedy every day on a personal level,” she said in the statement. “It serves no good purpose for anyone else to dredge up the pain of my childhood. I’m especially distressed that my college career may now be in jeopardy.”
Grant had answered “no” to a question on Harvard’s admission form asking if “in the last three years you have incurred serious or repeated disciplinary action or if you have ever been dismissed, suspended or separated from school” or placed on probation.
The question is generally taken to refer to actions taken in and by school authorities.
Grant was granted early admission by Harvard last December. Only exceptional candidates are admitted under such a plan.
Grant’s background came to light after The Boston Globe published a story about her last Sunday as an extraordinary example of children who have proven resilient in overcoming troubled backgrounds. At the time, The Globe did not know that Grant had pleaded no contest to killing her mother with a lead crystal candlestick holder. It quoted her only as saying that her father had died of cancer when she was 11 years old and that her mother had died under circumstances “too painful” to describe.
For the last two years, Grant has been living alone in an apartment in Cambridge, getting straight A’s at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and tutoring underprivileged youths. She had moved to Cambridge from South Carolina after a judge there decided to release her in the custody of an aunt and uncle who live in Massachusetts.
The Globe in its article on Sunday quoted her guidance counselor, Gordon Axtman, as saying of Grant, “She is definitely one of the most exceptional kids I’ve had in 20 years at this school.”
Following the publication of the article in The Globe, an anonymous person had copies of earlier stories from a South Carolina newspaper about the killing of Grant’s mother hand-delivered to Harvard, according to her lawyer here, Margaret Burnham.
Copies of the stories were also sent to The Globe, which reported the killing and Harvard’s decision to rescind its admission Friday morning.
The exact circumstances of the killing of Grant’s mother, Dorothy Mayfield, have been in dispute. Her former lawyer in South Carolina, Jack Swerling, said in a telephone interview that Grant had been “an exceptionally bright, affable, well-adjusted and charitable” student in junior high school at the time.
She grew up in a middle-class household in Lexington, S.C., a suburb of Columbia. Her father was an engineer, and her mother was an executive secretary. But Swerling said Grant’s life became very difficult after her father died of cancer in 1987 and her mother, already a heavy drinker, began to drink more.
“There was a lot of emotional abuse,” Swerling said, and at least the threat of physical abuse.
On the night on the killing, Sept. 13, 1990, an autopsy found that her mother’s blood-alcohol level was 0.30, three times the legal limit for driving.
But Donnie Myers, the solicitor, or prosecutor, for Lexington County, said that references to abuse were exaggerated and that investigation had shown that Grant and her mother had quarreled over the mother’s strict rules.
The arguments were particularly bitter when they concerned her mother’s efforts to keep Grant from staying out late with her 15-year-old boyfriend, Jack Hook, who had a juvenile criminal record, Myers said.
Eventually, Grant pleaded no contest to manslaughter, to striking her mother 13 times in the head with the candle holder.
Myers said that Hook had arrived after the killing and had tried to make it look like a suicide by sticking a knife in Mayfield’s neck and then wrapping her hand around it. Hook pleaded no contest to being an accessory after the fact and served less than a year in detention.
Grant was given widespread public support in South Carolina at the time of her trial, said John Allard, a reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia, who covered the incident. Indeed, her mother’s brother read a statement to the judge asking for leniency.
Burnham said that Grant had consulted her trial lawyer, Swerling, about filling out the Harvard application and that he had advised her that the question concerning disciplinary actions did not apply and that she had effectively served her court sentence and should be able to start again.
Grant believed “that the guiding principle of the juvenile justice system is redemption,” Burnham said.
In an interview Swerling added: “This girl has paid her debt. That chapter in her life should have been closed, and she should have been able to start over.”
“She earned the confidence of the judge, and that should have been the end of it,” Burnham said.
Burnham said that she was in contact with Harvard, asking the university to reconsider its decision, but that Grant was now also awaiting word from several other colleges to which she has applied. Burnham declined to name these other institutions. Burnham would not say whether Grant had been more explicit about her past to the other colleges.
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