It’s not every day that Harvard slams the door on a model American student like Gina Grant. But then there was this business with the candlestick and the knife, and the brutally battered and stabbed body of her mother, wasn’t there? Some say what she did when she was 14 is academic.
August 27, 1995
Report by Russell Miller
Who is Gina Grant? Round and about rural Lexington County South Carolina, where she grew up, there are plenty of good folk who will tell you that Gina was just the nicest teenager you could hope to meet. She was not only smart, an honours student, but cute, pretty and popular, she was a cheerleader and a star in the school tennis team. It was a shame, yes, a cryin' shame, what happened to her.
But there are some citizens of Lexington who will tell you, perhaps with a slow shake of the head, that Gina is far, very far, from the blonde sweetheart that everyone seems to think she is. They say she is a cunning manipulative young woman who literally got away with murder.
"I think she committed a carefully planned and particularly brutal murder," says the Lexington County sheriff James Metts, whose own daughter was in the same class as Gina at school, "and I think she knew all along that she would get away with it."
Gina Grant is the American teenager who was recently propelled to the centre of a national debate on the limits of retribution and redemption when an offer of early admission to Harvard, one of America's most illustrious universities, was suddenly withdrawn after it was discovered that she had been less than candid about her background on her application form. Gina had neglected to mention that at the age of 14 she had battered her mother to death with a crystal candlestick. The university issued a po-faced statement explaining that it had the right to rescind admission if a student "engages in behaviour that brings into question honesty, maturity or moral character" It seems that Gina told an interview board that her mother had died "in an accident".
Harvard was unprepared for the furore its decision would provoke. When the news leaked out, angry students held demonstrations on Gina's behalf, arguing that she had paid her debt to society and deserved to be treated like everyone else. The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, was inundated with letters of support.
Soon heavyweight media commentators were weighing in. The New York Times attacked Harvard's "unseemly haste" in rescinding its offer. In The Nation, the columnist Alexander Cockburn ridiculed the university for turning Grant away while awarding a fellowship to a Guatemalan government minister accused of supervising a massacre of Mayan Indians.
Gina herself refrained from entering the fray, other than issuing a brief statement: "I deal with this tragedy every day on a personal level. It serves no good purpose for anyone else to dredge up the pain of my childhood. In addition, I have no wish to defame my mother's memory by detailing any abuse."
While the national debate focused on the behaviour of the university and the right of juvenile offenders to be given a fresh start, back in Lexington the issues were closer to home. There were those people, perhaps the majority, who believed that poor Gina had been abused, was driven to do what she did, and had shown by 26 her exemplary behaviour since then that she deserved a second chance. And there were those who were convinced that she was a cold-blooded killer who should have been locked up for a long, long time.
Shortly after midnight on September 13, 1990, Dana Grant, a 23-year-old nurse at Lexington Medical Center, made a 911 emergency call from a payphone at an Amoco garage near her home. She said she had just arrived home from work but had found both the back and the side door locked. Her mother and her younger sister, Gina, should have been home. When she yelled for someone to open the door, nobody replied. She tried to open the front door with her key, but it was pushed shut again from the inside. She did not know what was going on. A Lexington County sheriff's deputy, Tim Darling, responded to her call, picked Dana up at the garage and drove her home--to a pleasant colonial-style house with brown shutters, set in its own grounds off Highway 378. When they arrived they found 14-year-old Gina standing outside, obviously in an agitated state. She told her sister that she had gotten into a fight with Momma and that Momma was hurt and might be dead.
Scene of the crime. The house in Lexington County where Gina and Dorothy lived.
Darling went into the house and saw what appeared to be thick smears of blood on the floor of the entrance hail. In the dining room he found the body of a woman, with multiple lacerations about the head and a kitchen knife stuck in her throat.
Detective John Phillips, a taciturn, thin-faced man with a straggly blond moustache, arrived soon afterwards. "It was one of the most violent and vicious homicides I have ever seen,” he recalls. "There was blood everywhere, spattered all over the walls in the kitchen. It was pretty obvious the victim had been killed in the kitchen and dragged into the dining room for some reason. I came back out and started talking to the girls. Dana was shook, but Gina was kinda excited, like her adrenaline was flowing."
Both young women agreed to accompany Phillips back to the County Sheriff's Department. It was there, at 2 am, that Gina made her first statement.
She said that her mother, Dorothy, was drunk and was screaming at her while Gina was on the telephone to her boyfriend, Jack Hook. After she put the telephone down, her mother said, "We need to have this out now," and made as if she wanted to have a fight, saying to Gina she was going to "beat her butt" and show her who was in charge. Dorothy unbuttoned her blouse because she did not want to "mess up her $300 suit" and took off her rings and her watch.
Gina said she was coming down from her bedroom when her mother grabbed her near the top of the stairs; they struggled and fell and her mother hit her head. "I was trying to get away from her and she kept grabbing my arms and, and doing this number, and trying to hit me. I mean she hit me in the back, she hit me in my shoulder, she, she slapped me a couple of times. Then, somehow, I don't know exactly how, I never really saw it, she had a knife and she pulled it up... I was terrified at that point 'cause I, I just knew that she was going to kill me. I grabbed her arm and we bumped around and I said, 'No, Momma, no!' and stuff like that. I jerked free of her and was backing up and she just looked at me and said 'One of us has got to go' again and she stabbed herself right in front of my eyes and then she was on the floor. Then I just, uh, stared at her for a couple of seconds. I looked at my hands and they were covered in blood'.
Detective Phillips didn't believe a word of it. He had been in the force for too long to think that the kind of head injuries sustained by the dead woman could have been caused by falling down carpeted stairs. He was also pretty sure, from the absence of blood around the wound, that the knife had been stuck into her throat after she had died.
Phillips and his colleagues made a second attempt to get at the truth, but Gina stuck to the same story, only conceding that the struggle might have been a little more violent than she originally suggested. She added that her mother made threats against her boyfriend, saying, "I'm going to kill that little son of a bitch." Meanwhile, forensic officers at the crime scene reported that they had found a plastic bag in a closet in Gina's bedroom, stuffed with towels that had apparently been used to mop up the blood downstairs, together with her mother's jacket, soaked with blood. The bag also contained a lead-crystal candlestick, encrusted with blood, which was almost certainly the weapon used to kill Dorothy.
Confronted with this information before 5 am, Gina agreed to make a third statement, in which she said she picked up the candlestick during the struggle and it might have bumped her mother on the head. She hadn't mentioned it before because she was scared. "The only thing I withheld from you was that, because I thought that you would think I killed her, and I didn't. Everything else is true. I swear. I tried to get some of the blood up from everywhere. I did it because I don't want to go to jail, because I didn't kill her."
The detectives questioning Gina were unnerved by her cool demeanour while she was making her statements: she was polite, dry-eyed and calmly changing her story to fit the new information. "If I hadn't been at the crime scene:' said Phillips, "I would have thought that she was very believable:' She even cracked a macabre joke when she asked to go to the rest room. Told she would have to be accompanied by a woman deputy, she quipped, "Don't worry. I don't have any body parts in my pocket.' She only cried, briefly, when she was told that she wouldn't be going home that night and that she would be charged with murder.
In the days following the killing, stories began to emerge about a side of her life that Gina had kept assiduously hidden. After the death three years earlier of Gina's father, a civil engineer, her 43-year-old mother had taken to the bottle. Although Dorothy Mayfield (she had recently remarried, but her new husband was away on the night of the killing) held down a job as a secretary in a local bank, she was drunk almost every night at home. At the time of her death, her blood alcohol level was 30; a reading of 37 can be fatal. In such a state she often flew into a drunken rage, sometimes inexplicably blaming Gina for the death of her father.
Lexington, relatively affluent, predominantly white, Republican-voting and God-fearing, is the kind of town that takes a hard line on law and order, a place where people talk about an eye for an eye and mean it. Gina Grant's case was to be a notable exception. Family and friends positively fell over each other to come out in support of her. Even Gina's maternal grandparents were sympathetic. "Gina's my precious baby,' her grandmother told the local newspaper. "I would give anything in the world to help her.' At the funeral, Gina's grandfather--the dead woman's father--touched her gently on the hand and wished her well.
Those who refused to accept that sweet Gina was capable of matricide could reason that she was the victim, a blameless child who had suffered so much abuse at the hands of her alcoholic mother that she finally snapped. The trouble was, other than the fact that Dorothy Mayfield was undoubtedly an alcoholic, there was precious little evidence of abuse.
Gina apparently said nothing to anyone about problems at home until a few days before the killing, leading police to suspect that the crime was premeditated and that she was perhaps setting up a defence. Over the Labor Day weekend she was out water-skiing on nearby Lake Murray with her friend, Christy Harrelson, when she suddenly confessed that she was frightened her mother was going to kill her. Her mother was becoming increasingly violent, she said, when she was drunk. Christy's mother, alarmed, telephoned the sheriff's department but was told there was nothing they could do unless "something happened".
“Christy knew that Gina had problems with her mother's drinking," says Eileen Harrelson, "but we never knew it was that bad. You could never have guessed. She was always cheerful when she was round here, playing basketball in the back yard, or tennis, whatever. None of us will ever know what happened that night with her mother, and I don't know how much Gina remembers, but I feel sure she thought her life was threatened. I see her as a victim, yes I do.”
Police officers investigating the Mayfield killing were not finding it easy to share Mrs. Harrelson's view. The autopsy revealed that Dorothy had been hit over the head, with considerable force, at least 13 times. The first blow was struck from behind while she was sitting at the kitchen table, and she had tried to ward off further blows but had been brutally beaten to the ground. She was already dead when a kitchen knife was driven into her throat with such force that it was embedded one and a half inches into the vertebrae. Someone had pressed the dead woman's hand around the handle of the knife in a clumsy attempt to make it look like a self-inflicted wound. The candlestick (curiously, a present from Gina to her mother) had been wiped clean of fingerprints.
Investigators soon came to the conclusion that Gina's problems with her mother were less to do with her mother's alcoholism than with Gina's passionate adolescent love affair with her boyfriend, Jack Hook. Jack went to the same school as Gina and played on the junior varsity football team, but he was a mediocre student, was often in trouble and had a police record, largely for petty crime and vandalism. He was not, in short, the kind of boy that a nice girl like Gina was expected to go out with, which was presumably one of his attractions. They had started dating when she was 13.
Dot Mayfield may have been a drunk but she was still a mother, and she made no secret of the fact, that she did not approve of their relationship. She would have been even less happy had she known that Gina was sneaking Jack into her bedroom to stay the night at least once or twice a week. Hook would drive over in his father's red Corvette late in the evening and hang around outside the house waiting for a signal from Gina. If she came outside with the family dog and shouted, "You stupid dog!" it was a signal that her mother had passed out and Jack could come in. If she said, "Go get your bone!" it meant he should go home.
About a month before the murder, Gina stayed out all night with Hook. She attempted to deflect her mother's wrath with a ludicrous kidnap story. She said she had been walking away from some friends near the football ground when a "tall, fat, smelly man" shoved her into a beat-up grey Toyota, told her not to scream and drove her around all night. Gina filed a complaint with the sheriff's department but later confessed she had made it all up, and the matter was dropped.
In her statements, Gina made no secret of the fact that her boyfriend was a significant cause of friction with her mother, and police suspected from the outset that Hook might have been involved. He was interviewed at his home in Maple Road on the morning of the killing and swore that he had not been at Gina's house the previous night. He said he had spoken to her on the telephone at about 9:30 pm and had heard her mother ranting in the background, but he had not gone over there.
A few days later, Hook was fingerprinted and it was discovered that his prints matched those on the handle of the knife found in Dot Mayfield's throat. Hook protested that he was always over at Gina's house and so his fingerprints were probably on a lot of knives; in fact he remembered, only a few days earlier, he had been practicing throwing knives into a tree. The detectives were unimpressed; they believed that Gina had probably called Jack over to the house after the killing and that he had not only stuck the knife in the dead woman's throat but had also helped her clear up the mess. Hook was charged with being an accessory and held in the juvenile wing of Lexington County jail.
It is, of course, impossible to know what was going through Gina Grant's mind in the next few weeks. What is known is that on October 17, 1990, the sheriff's department was contacted and told that Gina wished to make a new statement. It transpired she wanted to tell them that her boyfriend had killed her mother.
He had come into the house through the back door, she said, while she was fighting with her mother in the kitchen. Her mother then picked up a knife, which she held a few inches from Gina's face. "I was just trying to make her drop it and I was still yelling and, uh, I saw him run off into the den area and then he came back. I remember seeing his hand raised with the crystal thing, the candlestick, in his hand. I saw him hit her once in the back of the head and then I just turned away... I didn't hear Momma scream, um, I, you know, didn't hear a whole lot of noises. I heard him hitting her and then I was leaning on the counter and I had my hands up against my head and I was screaming and then, I, I, looked up and I saw everything that had happened and Jack was just, he was standing there, he had started shaking all over and, um, he was saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God..." The interviewing officer asked Gina how the knife got into her mother's throat. "I guess he stabbed her," she replied.
At the end of the statement, Gina agreed that she had come forward with the new story because she had been told that otherwise she would be going to jail.
"So you're telling us that Jack did this so you can get out of jail?"
"What happens if Jack tells us you did it so he can get out of jail?"
"You just have to decide who you believe, I guess"
Sheila Hook, Jack's mother, was distraught when she learned that Gina had made a new statement pinning the blame on her son, particularly as Gina regularly telephoned her from the jail to tell her Jack was innocent. Jack's lawyer advised Mrs. Hook to start recording all her telephone conversations with Gina.
The transcripts make fascinating reading, Gina seems composed throughout, keen to discover what Jack is telling his mother. Sometimes she assures Mrs. Hook that Jack wasn't at the house that night, sometimes she says she thinks a third party was involved, sometimes she says she can't really remember what happened, maybe Jack was there. Mrs. Hook constantly pleads with her to tell the truth; Gina constantly swears that she has.
During one call, a sniffling Mrs. Hook read out to Gina a letter that Jack had written to her. It was, under the circumstances, remarkably restrained: "Gina, well how are you doing? Fine, I hope... Gina, I'm sorry and I know you're hurting all over, but I just want the best for you in the long run. Times are hard now, but they will get better. If you tell the whole truth of what happened the law will respect you for that and help you out, because they know how your mother was. I don't know what happened that night and I don't care, because I love you all the same. I know it's hard but, Gina, you have to get strong and help yourself. I'll stick by you the whole way, and wherever you go I'll be there whenever I can. It's not easy for me either, I mean I'm in jail for something I have nothing to do with. None of my friends will ever have the same trust in me. I can never play football again and I'll fail the ninth grade, but all that I can handle, but I can't handle seeing you in jail for the rest of your life. I'm sorry and I wish I could help you, but there's nothing I can do except tell you the best thing to do. I'm sorry and I'll love you forever. Gina, just tell your lawyer what happened and he will straighten it out for you. I'm sorry again and I love you very much. PS: Write back. I love you forever, Gina. Jack."
Gina appeared unmoved and suggested later in the same conversation that it might be a good idea if Jack, who she knew was not too bright, "confessed”.
Gina: Well, Jack has several options... one [is to] turn against me and say I did it, and then it turns into a circus and then we'll just have to see who they believe. Or he can make like a confession or something like that and they would reduce the charge."
Mrs. Hook: "A confession!"
"Something, something along those lines…”
"I mean, really...(sniff) Jack wasn't there! Or was he? I mean one minute you say he was and one minute you say he wasn't”
"(Sniff) No what?"
"No, he wasn't, Mrs. Hook.”
Whatever Gina hoped to achieve from accusing her boyfriend of the murder did not come to pass. In January 1991, on the advice of her lawyer, she agreed to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter in return for the prosecution's dropping the murder charge. Gina and Jack were both sentenced to be detained in a youth correctional facility for an indeterminate period, not to exceed their 21st birthdays.
Nine months later, in a surprise move, a judge agreed that Gina could be transferred to Massachusetts, to a special residential school for children with emotional problems. Crucial to the decision was the fact that Gina's aunt and uncle, Carol and Alan Bennett, who lived in Massachusetts, promised to provide love and support and pay for her residential care. With Gina's departure from South Carolina, the brouhaha created in Lexington County by the killing of her mother was soon forgotten. Gina, too, might have been forgotten. But it was not to be.
Gina’s lawyer Jack Swerling was impressed by his client’s maturity and articulacy. “I have no doubt Gina hit her mother in self-defence,” he says. “She was just a charming young lady, exactly how you’d like your own little girl to be. In fact, at one point I was considering suggesting to the court that she should come and live with my family.
“She was smart enough to commit this crime and get away with it”. Sheriff James Metts (left, with Detective John Phillips)
In April of this year, the Boston Globe ran a feature about exceptional teenagers who, by dint of courage, personality or perseverance, have overcome adversity. One of them was Gina Grant.
She was, the newspaper explained, an orphan who had lived alone in a small flat in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since her 16th birthday. A straight-A student at the respected Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where staff spoke glowingly of her as "bright, caring and loving, like the Ivory Soap girl” she had recently learned she had been accepted for Harvard. Gina told the Globe her father died of cancer when she was 11 and her mother had died three years later in circumstances "too painful to discuss". She had moved to Cambridge to live with her aunt but it hadn't worked out and so she had been alone since then, looking after herself and managing to make ends meet from a modest family trust fund. She found she coped best with the loss of her parents by helping others; she had spent the previous summer teaching biology to underprivileged children. "I learned early on how to be independent," she cheerily explained. "Life doesn't stop when your parents die.”
The timing could hardly have been worse. A few days earlier, someone who clearly knew about Gina's background had mailed to the university a package of South Carolina newspaper cuttings relating to the Dorothy Mayfield murder. On the day after the Boston Globe's glowing profile of Gina, the Harvard admissions committee met and decided to rescind its offer of a place.
If people in South Carolina were surprised to see Gina Grant's name back in the headlines, all the agencies and individuals who had been involved in her case were astounded to learn that she had been living on her own for at least two years. They all believed that she was still under strict supervision in a rehabilitation programme.
Inquiries revealed she had only spent a matter of weeks in a residential facility after her transfer to Massachusetts. She had then been allowed to move in with her uncle and aunt, but had promptly had a bitter disagreement with them and moved out to live on her own. (It was rumoured in Boston that the Bennetts were so disillusioned with Gina that they were responsible for sending the newspaper cuttings to Harvard; neither Carol nor Alan Bennett has spoken about what happened between them and their niece.)
Marlene McLain of the South Carolina juvenile Parole Board was deeply unhappy: "This young lady has made a mockery of the system and got off with a very, very light sentence. Young people who commit serious and brutal crimes need to be held accountable, to express an appropriate level of remorse, and go through a period of incarceration and rehabilitation. Quite frankly, she has manipulated the system.”
The realisation that Gina was free, and living on her own, less than 18 months after killing her mother also reopened in South Carolina the whole thorny question about whether or not she had "gotten away with murder.” "She should have been dealt with much more harshly than she was," says Sheriff Metts . "Gina Grant is a very cunning, manipulative and intelligent young lady. She was smart enough to know what she was doing and smart enough to commit this crime and get away with it. I'm not saying she's a sociopath, but there's something about her that really worries me. I do think she could be violent again if she was put into a situation in which she was prevented from doing what she wanted to do.”
In his office behind Lexington's redbrick courthouse, Donnie Myers, the county solicitor, shakes his head slowly when I ask him about Gina. "In my opinion, the criminal justice system has failed miserably. This was the most gruesome juvenile crime I've ever handled in this county. I think it must have been preplanned. The key to it was that she was madly in love with that boy. I think the mother wanted to stop her seeing the boy so she just picked up the candlestick and beat the hell out of her. But she was clever, no question. She stood toe to toe with the officers questioning her and denied everything. You would catch her out in these tremendous lies and she would just come right back at you with something else. She never did fess up.”
Gina's lawyer was Jack Swerling, an amiable, slightly rumpled and well-respected attorney who never lost faith in his client. "I have no doubt Gina hit her mother in self-defence," he says. "What struck me most about Gina was her maturity. I was amazed how bright and articulate she was. She was a unique client and I always knew she was going to do great things. I am really proud of the fact that she has stayed out of this debate about getting into Harvard. She could have turned this thing into megabucks. I was getting constant phone calls from publicists and agents wanting to sign her up. She's been offered book contracts and movie contracts and national television interviews, but she's turned them all down. She is not looking for attention. All she wants to do is get her education and do something with herself.”
Yes, Gina will no doubt make a great success of her life. After the furore over the Harvard application had died down, she quietly accepted a place at Tufts University, Massachusetts, where she will start next month. She has talked about becoming a lawyer or a doctor.
Jack Hook has not fared quite so well. After he was released on parole he was soon in trouble again, with a couple of guys he had met in jail. He is now back inside, in a high-security adult prison, serving 10 years for second-degree burglary, grand larceny and safe‑cracking .