Hopkins suspect wants diploma University withholds degree in aftermath of campus slaying

June 19, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Robert J. Harwood Jr., accused of killing a fellow Johns Hopkins University student in April, may have to spend the rest of his life in prison, but right now he's got a more academic concern -- he's upset that the university will not send him a diploma.

The university recently informed Harwood, 22, that he is suspended from Hopkins -- and therefore will not receive a degree -- until the outcome of charges of first-degree murder in the killing of student Rex Chao, 19.

According to police, Harwood fired two bullets from a .357-caliber Magnum into Chao outside the campus library April 10, as Chao's horrified girlfriend looked on. The two men had had a close friendship, but in the weeks before the shooting, Chao tried to cut off communication and complained to university officials that Harwood was obsessively calling him and sending electronic mail.

Harwood, a chemistry major, completed course work for the Hopkins degree in 3 1/2 years. He took his last semester off to rest, read and save tuition while he waited to graduate with his class in May, telling friends he was interested in a career in patent law.

Now, even with that possibility in doubt, Harwood wants to be a Hopkins graduate, according to his lawyer, Michael E. Kaminkow.

"In this difficult time for him, the denial of his diploma after 3 1/2 years at the university, after completing his course study, is very disappointing," said Kaminkow, himself a Hopkins graduate. "He's earned it and he wants it, regardless of what the future holds for him."

"He's entitled to it even if he never gets a chance to use it," said Harwood's grandmother, Beverly Harwood of Bradford, R.I. "It certainly means everything to him. Hopkins meant the world to my grandson. This is something that kid really wanted out of life. It's something that's coming to him. Suppose this had happened the day after he got that diploma. Would they take it back?"

The dispute centers on whether Harwood qualifies as a student subject to the university's code of conduct.

University spokesman Dennis O'Shea said that until Harwood receives a degree, he is still subject to the conduct code. The code requires that in addition to maintaining good academic standing, students obey the law and "refrain from conduct which injures persons or property."

O'Shea also points to a page of the Hopkins catalog that states that the awarding of degrees is contingent on compliance with university regulations. And he noted that degrees had been withheld from other students who completed academic requirements but committed less serious violations of the university code.

O'Shea said Hopkins officials sent Harwood a letter stating that he had been suspended under the university code until either his trial is concluded or he is released on bail. Harwood, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, is being held without bail at the Baltimore City Detention Center. His trial, at which he could receive life in prison if convicted, is scheduled for Oct. 2.

After Chao reported his conflict with Harwood, Dean of Students Susan K. Boswell told Harwood he should inform her before coming to campus. Harwood complied the night before Chao's death, saying he would be coming the next evening to a meeting of the College Republican Club, where Chao was running for chairman.

"He was participating in a student activity that very night," O'Shea said.

O'Shea said that after Harwood's criminal case is decided, there will be a formal hearing to determine whether Harwood will get a degree. "He has not been told in any final sense that he will not get his degree," he said.

But Kaminkow said his client had completed all the requirements for graduation and wasn't paying tuition, and so was not subject to discipline as a student.

Kaminkow said he planned to contact Hopkins officials about the withheld degree. "We hope to resolve this amicably," he said.

On the quiet Hopkins campus yesterday, two students who said they knew neither Chao nor Harwood had opposite views of what the school should do.

Amit Trivedi, who will be a senior this fall, said it was appropriate not to give Harwood a degree, at least until the outcome of his trial. "His actions reflect on the university." Trivedi said.

But Esther Kim, an incoming sophomore, said: "I think he should be given his diploma. He paid for all the years, and he did all the course work. The consequence of his action is prison, and afterward he's still going to need an education."

Hopkins political science Professor Matthew Crenson, who did not know Harwood or Chao, said he saw nothing wrong with the university's action.

"The university's requirements are not solely academic," he said. "There are other requirements that we expect students to meet.

"It seems to me that against the background of what's happened here, the issue of the diploma fades to insignificance."

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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