We All Believe in Redemption . . . up to a Point

April 19, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- What it comes down to is the nature of forgiveness, redemption -- or maybe rehabilitation is a better word when we talk about crime and punishment. Do we really believe in clean slates? Are there some dues that are never fully paid?

For over a week now, the talk of this town has been a Cambridge high school senior named Gina Grant. On April 2, this 19-year-old appeared in the Boston Globe as a model of how resilient kids can be. She was an all-A student, the captain of the tennis team, a devoted tutor for disadvantaged kids.

Gina Grant had succeeded, despite the fact that she was an orphan. At 11, she'd lost her dad to cancer. At 14, she'd lost her mom to circumstances that, she said, were too painful to describe. To top it off, she'd won acceptance to Harvard.

Within days however, we learned about the death that was too painful to describe. In 1990, Gina Grant had murdered her mother. The model student was a matricide. She'd done time -- six months in a South Carolina juvenile facility -- before being allowed to come here, to start again.

Maybe Harvard had been impressed by what one source called ''the orphan angle'' on this applicant. But now it had second thoughts. The statement reversing the offer said, vaguely, that admission can be rescinded if students lie on their application or if they behave in ways that ''bring into question honesty, maturity or moral character.''

Since then, the debate from Harvard Yard to ''Nightline'' has been about the rights of a juvenile offender and the behavior of the university -- about unsealed records and second chances.

Those who take Gina Grant's side talk about the ''exemplary life'' she has led since the ''mistake'' which resulted in ''the tragic death'' of her mother. Those who do not, talk about the mother's crushed skull, about the repeated blows from a candlestick, about the blood.

Defenders characterize the 14-year-old as an emotionally battered girl who finally struck out against her alcoholic mother. Detractors dismiss this Menendez-sister-defense and portray her as a rebellious teen who with her boyfriend tried to concoct a suicide story by sticking a knife in the dead mother's throat.

There are people at her new school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who talk of her as strong, a survivor. There are people in her old town in Lexington, South Carolina, who talk of her as hard, remorseless.

In the same dialectic, some see Harvard as ''arrogant,'' intent on imposing its own, second, punishment on a 19-year-old. Others see the university as stung by the orphan, wary of explaining Ms. Grant's past to her future roommate's mother.

But underlying this noisy argument is a quieter, more complex question: Is there any such thing as a truly fresh start?

Most of us believe in rehabilitation, the idea that people, like houses, can be stripped down to the walls and rebuilt. But we also believe that the old structure may remain intact under the new wallpaper.

When Mike Tyson is freed from jail, we say he paid his dues. But many recoil from his renewed celebrity. When a sex offender is released, he's done his time. But more than one family would want to know if he moved onto the block. What student wouldn't want to know if a convicted rapist was on her dormitory floor?

The juvenile justice system is built on the premise that a child deserves a second chance. It promises to seal the records, wipe out the past. But it can't wipe out a community's memory.

In this celebrated case, Ms. Grant was never more than a Nexis search away from revelation. The people protesting Harvard's arrogance today might have had a lot to say about its ignorance tomorrow.

Gina Grant was not, after all, convicted of shoplifting. She is guilty of murder. I have no idea what is in her mind or in her nightmares. Not even the people who wish her a clean slate would, I imagine, wish her a clean conscience.

No matter what the protesting students believe, being denied admission to Harvard is not one of life's cruelest blows. It's not reneging on the world's promise that a juvenile offender can lead a full life. Ask the other high school seniors who applied to Harvard -- nine out of 10 of whom got rejection notices this week.

In the case of Gina Grant, Harvard was well within the boundaries of fairness when it acted on its doubt.

This enormously bright and yes, resilient, young woman, has the respect of her teachers and all those who have watched her survive and help others these last years. She will make her way. But I suspect she already knows that there are acts in life that are simply irrevocable, utterly irreversible. Murder is one of them. Afterward, the slate is never again quite clean.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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