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    Mediator sends Baby Sam case back to court

    A decision from the Alabama Supreme Court could take days, weeks or even months.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


    MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It wasn't until late Thursday, hours after a discouraging conference call with attorneys, that mediator Mark Kennedy gave up on trying to make peace between two families vying for custody of 4-year-old Sam Johnson.

    The longtime mediator and child advocate had been hopeful for months that he could help the bitterly divided sides forge an agreement and end almost five years of feuding between biological and adoptive parents.

    But on Friday, after weeks of unsuccessful talks, he sent the so-called Baby Sam case back to the Alabama Supreme Court, asking the justices once again to decide Sam's fate.

    "I remained optimistic and confident, but obviously in mediation there is no guarantee," Kennedy said Friday. "Certainly any time the process is not successful, there is disappointment."

    The court now has two options: reaffirm its November decision to give Sam to his biological father, Christopher Vietri of New Port Richey; or take up the case again, a request made by adoptive parents Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

    The families did not attend Kennedy's hastily called news conference on Friday in downtown Montgomery near the Capitol. But their attorneys expected Kennedy's decision.

    "We are very disappointed that mediation has failed," said Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney. "We had hoped we could reach common ground."

    Vietri and the Johnsons now wait for word from the court, which could take days, weeks, even months to make a decision. If it reaffirms its ruling, the Johnsons would have 14 days to turn the child over to Vietri.

    "We wait," said Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's Alabama attorney. "That's nothing new to us. We've waited almost five years."

    Though the court ordered mediation to try to work out a compromise, Vietri and the Johnsons have never said they would consider anything but full custody of Sam.

    Sam, who has been seeing a child psychologist for months, met Vietri for the first time last month as part of mediation. But now that those talks are over, both sides say there are no plans for Sam to see him again.

    Vietri and the Johnsons, along with almost a dozen attorneys from Florida and Alabama, met behind closed doors twice in all-day sessions in January and February. Kennedy, a retired state Supreme Court justice in Alabama, held the talks in a conference room in the court's formal building.

    The mediation sessions -- the first face-to-face meetings between Vietri and the Johnsons in years -- were described as cordial. But after mediation broke down, the two sides began trading accusations again.

    The Johnsons claim Vietri and his attorney, Larry Liebling of Clearwater, broke an agreement both sides signed in January to not speak publicly about the case. Vietri denies that claim.

    Kennedy said Friday that no one -- not even he -- is supposed to talk about what happened during mediation. He refused to comment on whether anyone violated the agreement, saying that a bar association or civil court judge would decide that if asked.

    Kennedy gave the court a confidential written report -- less than one page long -- on Friday. He said he did not make a recommendation or reveal details of the mediation.

    Recent coverage

    Custody feuding for Sam resumes (March 2, 2001)

    Dad, adoption agency settle Baby Sam suit (January 23, 2001)

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