Real-Life Morality Play Unfolds at Harvard

Honors student admitted to school is rejected when murder revealed

NO one in the cafes, shops, and brick-lined sidewalks of Harvard Square doubts that Gina Grant would have made an excellent Harvard University student.

But the fact that the local honor-roll student killed her mother four years ago in South Carolina and failed to disclose it on her application -- prompting the university to deny her entrance after initial acceptance -- gives some people here pause.

''I believe in rehabilitation, to a degree,'' says Mary, a clerk at the juice counter of a health-food store, as she chops wheat grass. ''But it doesn't erase the past.''

Cab driver Steve Jubeili is more sympathetic. ''Definitely they should let her go if she can pass the academic entrance exam,'' he says.

The case of Ms. Grant has become Boston's own morality play. It is a real-life story of tragedy and triumph -- one that everyone from cab drivers to college presidents now wants to script the next act for.

The elements, to be sure, are dramatic. Grant, a model student at the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, applied and was accepted as a student at Harvard University for next year. This was more than just another case of a student overcoming difficult circumstances to get into a prestigious college. Grant was an orphan.

Her father died when she was 11, leaving her in the care of her alcoholic mother, Dorothy Mayfield. Grant's murder of Mayfield in 1990 -- following what she said were years of abuse and what prosecutors said was a mother-daughter dispute over a boyfriend -- shocked her hometown of Lexington, S.C.

Though the records of juvenile proceedings are usually sealed, a local sheriff broke protocol and released her name as the chief suspect shortly after the incident occurred. The local media then provided daily coverage.

Grant's eventual sentence was relatively light -- 18 to 24 months in a South Carolina youth facility. A judge later allowed her to finish her probation in Massachusetts, where her aunt and uncle live.

Grant lived in relative obscurity until last month, when she was profiled in the Boston Globe as a resilient orphan who had excelled in school. No mention was made of Grant's crime or punishment, because Grant didn't detail the cause of her mother's death and the reporter apparently didn't pursue it. These facts, though, were soon sent anonymously to the newspaper -- and Harvard.

The school, which has a policy of rejecting anyone who lies on an application, denied her admission just days after accepting her. Grant said in a statement issued last week that she was ''saddened and disappointed'' at Harvard's decision, noting she had hoped for a ''fresh start.''

Instead, she is at the center of a high-toned debate in this citadel of higher education over issues of privacy and rehabilitation, and how much of a person's youth should follow her into adulthood.

''The mood of the country is that rehabilitation doesn't matter,'' says Jerome Miller, a former commissioner of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts and now at the National Center for Institutes and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va. ''If Grant had been tried as an adult -- or if she had spent years in the juvenile justice system -- her life would have been destroyed.''

Nothando, a Harvard economics student, says that safety was likely Harvard's chief concern.

But Bill Norton, a Roman Catholic priest and part-time student at Harvard, sees it differently. Sitting at an outdoor cafe, he says Grant fits the profile of an abused child, and ''not many girls could tell society about the horrors of alcoholism. She has a right to be educated; society could learn a lot from her.''

He also sees some dark humor in the whole incident. ''I told a friend in Houston, 'liberal Harvard has its boundaries: They won't accept murderers,''' he says. ''There's about everything else here, but not murderers.''

The issue has continued to roil students, even as final exams approach. A petition drive has begun and Harvard students held a protest rally today.

Harvard, for its part, is standing its ground. The school said last week, in a prepared statement, that it may change its mind about applicants based on several factors, such as ''behavior that brings into question honesty, maturity, or moral character'' or an application that contains ''misrepresentations.''

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