Harvard rejects girl who killed her mother

FROM RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

She seemed the model entrant, boasting brilliant grades, a pleasing personality and an impressive record of helping children from poor homes, less gifted than herself. But Gina Grant failed to reveal one thing before she was offered rare early admission for 1995 by Harvard. Five years earlier, she had savagely murdered her mother.

That omission has now cost her the coveted place, divided and hugely embarrassed America's most illustrious university, polarised its home city of Boston, and brought about a national debate on whether young criminals who have paid their debt to society should be allowed a new, untainted start to life.

The story begins in South Carolina in 1990, when Gina Grant, then 14, bludgeoned her alcoholic mother, Dorothy Mayfield, to death with a crystal candlestick, and with the help of her boyfriend tried to present it as a suicide.

She pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, and served six months in a juvenile detention centre before being released on parole into the custody of relatives in Massachusetts.

There she flourished, so excelling at school that New England's leading paper, the Boston Globe, unaware of her past, profiled her in a series on outstanding students from the area. The article was noticed back in South Carolina. Anonymous letters arrived at the Globe and the Harvard admissions office, containing newspaper cuttings about her trial, and Ms Grant's new troubles began in earnest.

Last week, the university brusquely withdrew its offer of a place, claiming she had lied on her application form and to interviewers - only to run into a hail of criticism for its supposedly heartless behaviour. "Decision- making triggered by press clippings that show up in the mail is not a process taught in any of the social sciences," wrote the New York Times, as pro- and anti-Grant demonstrations took place on the Harvard campus.

Boston is in uproar. "Harvard on the Hot Seat," headlined the Murdoch- owned tabloid, the Boston Herald, revelling in the discomfort of the Globe, its liberal arch-rival. Boston's most famous conservative talk-radio host, Howie Clark - whose exploits have included special broadcasts from Chappaquiddick during Senator Edward Kennedy's 1994 re-election campaign - is polling listeners: "Where should Gina Grant be, Harvard or Death Row ?"

Ms Grant's story is less black and white than a complicated shade of grey. In South Carolina, she has as many opponents as defenders. For a psychiatrist who testified for her during the trial, she was victim of "one of the worst cases of psychological abuse I've ever seen," as the widowed mother vented her drunken rage at her daughter.

But the judge who sentenced her has been widely criticised for his leniency. Only this week, the police officer who investigated the killing declared that Ms Grant was a "cunning, intelligent manipulator," who constantly changed her story and showed no remorse.When she died, Mayfield was so drunk she would have been unable to defend herself. During the 1990 trial her daughter conceded that she had "a lot of problems showing how sorry I am''.

Brushing off accusations of a vindictive rush to judgment, Harvard says the matter is closed. As far as the university is concerned, Ms Grant is just one of 50,000 Americans who tried and failed to win one of its places in 1995.

But wider questions remain, of a criminal's right to forgiveness, privacy and a new start in life, especially when - as in the case of Ms Grant - rehabilitation seems complete.

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