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    Lawyer says child should stay where he is

    The attorney argues the 4-year-old in Alabama should not be given to his biological father.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


    Sam Johnson's court-appointed attorney asked the Alabama Supreme Court on Monday to reconsider its decision to take the 4-year-old boy away from his adoptive parents and give him to his biological father in New Port Richey.

    Karen Dice, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., attorney who has represented Sam in court through years of legal wrangling, claims Sam's best interests would be served by staying with Mark and Tracy Johnson, who have raised him since he was 3 days old.

    The Johnsons' Alabama attorneys, Scott Stapp and Drew Whitmire, had not yet seen the motion late Monday but said they hoped Dice's request would help persuade the court to change its narrow 5-4 vote from last month.

    On Monday, the court also received the Johnsons' request for reconsideration that had been mailed to the clerk's office in Montgomery just before the deadline to appeal.

    While the state's high court considers the request, attorneys for both the Johnsons and Sam's biological father, Christopher Vietri, agree the law allows the boy to remain at his home in Tuscaloosa.

    It's not clear how long it will take -- days, weeks or even months -- for the court to make its decision. If the Johnsons lose, they could have as little as two weeks to a month to give Sam to Vietri.

    Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, said he thinks Dice's opinion is based on a belief that Vietri mistreated Sam's biological mother while she was pregnant and that it would be best for the child to stay in the only home he has ever known.

    But Larry Liebling, Vietri's Clearwater attorney who has not seen the motion either, said he thinks Dice is trying to claim Sam has a constitutional right under the 14th Amendment to stay with the Johnsons. Liebling called the argument "far-fetched."

    Dice did not return calls Monday.

    The Johnsons have said they probably will appeal further -- to the U.S. Supreme Court -- if they are unsuccessful at the local level, but only if Sam can stay with them while the legal battle continues. Vietri said he will fight if the Alabama court reverses its decision.

    The Johnsons and Vietri have been battling over who should have custody of Sam since he was 11 weeks old.

    Sam's 19-year-old biological mother gave him to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was. Vietri had broken up with the woman mid pregnancy, and she told him the baby had been stillborn. Vietri began to suspect his child hadn't died and filed for custody.

    Two years ago, a Tuscaloosa judge ruled the Johnsons should have Sam. An appeals court upheld the decision, but last month, after having the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the judge's decision.

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