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February 3, 1996

PENSACOLA, Florida (AP) -- A lesbian mother has decided to fight a judge's decision to grant custody of her 11-year-old daughter to the child's father, who was convicted of killing his first wife in 1974.

Circuit Judge Joseph Tarbuck granted John Ward's request for a custody change last August, citing the mother's sexual orientation. He gave Ward's second wife, Mary Ward, standard visiting privileges.

Mary Ward, 46, is taking the battle to a state appeals court, contending that sexual orientation shouldn't matter. Though she has refused interviews, one of her lawyers from the National Center for Lesbian Rights said laws in Florida and most other states clearly say evidence must show a child has been harmed to change a custody order.

"It presents a very stark example of how irrational it is to take a child away from a stable, committed parent because of sexual orientation," attorney Shannon Minter said. "The fact that the father in this case has a demonstrated history of violent and abusive behavior is outrageous."

John Ward and his third wife Rita appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday to plead their case.

"I feel I can give her a better environment," said Ward, 44. "I can give my baby a home, and I think she deserves that."

"I really believe in my heart Cassey would be better with us," said Rita Ward. "She's been in a good Christian school and she's done really well. She's adjusted well."

Ward's lawyer, Ted Stokes, said Thursday that his client has been rehabilitated since he fatally shot his first wife, Judy, in 1974. He served eight years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

"The child was being led down the path to a lesbian lifestyle and he felt that she should have the opportunity to live in what we would refer to as a traditional family setting with traditional family values," Stokes said, "so that she could see essentially how the other half lives."

Eleven-year-old Cassey has lived with Ward and his third wife, Rita, since August 28.

In another development Friday, Ward's daughter from his first marriage, Michelle McInnes, 24, said he tried to fondle her at age 14.

McInnes said she would testify for Mary Ward that her father should not have custody of Cassey.

"My father was convicted of killing my mother," McInnes told WEAR-TV in Pensacola. "And the one thing a lot of people don't know is my dad tried to molest me and I know my dad tried to molest other children and he does not deserve to have her or any child."

Copyright 1996 Cable News Network, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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