This is how John Ward described killing his first wife.
“I wanted her to give me my divorce and custody of my daughter,” he told Geraldo Rivera. “And she told me she’d see me in hell first. And I told her to save me a seat. And then I shot her.”
“ … I shot her three times in the upper left shoulder,” he said. “She told me not to kill her, she would give me the baby and a divorce. I fired three times point blank into the heart. … And I reloaded and I shot her six more times, point blank.”
Ward did eight years in prison for second-degree murder. But there is more. One of his daughters has said that when she was a child, he tried to molest her and other children. A stepdaughter has said that when she was a teenager, “I brought a friend of mine over, a black girl. He was like, ‘Get that damn n––r out of my yard.’”
The point being, that Ward was hardly an exemplary human being.
Yet when a Pensacola judge had to choose between this steaming hot pile of humanity and his estranged second wife in deciding custody of their adolescent daughter, Cassey, the judge sided with him. Given what a piece of work this guy was, you might wonder: What was it about Mary Ward that was so objectionable a court would choose him over her?
Simple. Mary was gay. Cassey, said the judge, should grow up in “a non-lesbian world.”
That appalling 1996 ruling is brought to mind by news of a new Supreme Court decision. Monday, the top court unanimously sided with a gay adoptive mother fighting her former partner for access to their children. The unnamed plaintiff filed suit after the couple split up and the ex-partner, who is the children’s biological mother, refused to let her see them. The adoption had originally been processed in Georgia, but the Supreme Court of Alabama, where the two women now reside, refused to recognize its legitimacy.
In striking down the lower court ruling, the Supreme Court offers an important affirmation of the parental rights of gay men and women. But even as you laud it, even as you welcome it, your thoughts turn to Mary Ward. And not just to her, but all the other men and women who lost their children because some judge deemed their sexuality more important than their personhood or parental fitness.
Sadly, we’ll never know what Mary’s take on this might have been. She died of a sudden heart attack the year after she lost her child. It’s hard not to suspect grief played some part in that.
Four years ago, a pair of Miami Beach filmmakers released “Unfit,” a documentary on the case. In writing about the film, The Miami Herald’s Steve Rothaus reported that Cassey ended up bouncing in and out of her father’s house for a few years before finally moving in for good with her older sister Carla, who is a lesbian.
Cassey herself told filmmakers she regrets being taken from her mom. “I look at my brother and my sisters, and how they’re, you know, doing good and have all their friends and great jobs and homes, and I think if Mom would have got to raise me it would be the same because they had the love and support from Mom. But my dad was country and kind of narrow-minded.”
This week, the nation’s highest tribunal figured out what Cassey’s narrow-minded dad never could – that “lesbian mother” is just another word for “mother.” One is pleased to see it, but one’s pleasure is shadowed by morbid ruminations on the hardiness of ignorance, the intransigence of fear and the way people’s lives get ground to pieces on the gears in between. Twenty years after the fact, Mary Ward finally finds a rough and imperfect vindication. This is a good thing, yes.
But you know what they say about justice too long delayed.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.