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    Sam's father asks court to retain ruling on custody

    The adoptive parents continue to battle a ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court that would give the 4-year-old to his father.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    Christopher Vietri asked the Alabama Supreme Court on Monday to stay true to its decision to give him custody of his 4-year-old biological son, Sam, who has lived with adoptive parents since he was 3 days old.

    The state's high court was asked to take another look at the case in early December at the request of the adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson.

    While that happens, Sam will remain with the Johnsons in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

    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 will have about two weeks to a month to give Sam to Vietri in New Port Richey.

    Because the Johnsons have not heard from the court yet, Sam likely will begin the new year in Alabama.

    Two weeks ago, the Johnsons' attorneys asked the court to reconsider its 5-4 decision for two reasons: The court should not have changed a Tuscaloosa judge's findings from two years ago that Vietri abandoned Sam's biological mother while she was pregnant. The court also should have accepted the concept of "prebirth abandonment," which calls for a biological father to lose rights to his child if he fails to provide sufficient emotional and financial support to the mother during pregnancy, the Johnsons argue.

    But Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's attorney in Alabama, argues the court's initial ruling was correct under the law.

    She said Vietri did not abandon his girlfriend, and even if he did, it would be irrelevant because the state did not have a law regarding prebirth abandonment at the time.

    She also disputes that the justices changed the judge's findings. Instead, she says, they disagreed with the judge on how those findings applied to the law.

    Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, said the Alabama Supreme Court could accept prebirth abandonment as public policy just like the Florida Supreme Court did in 1989 before the law was on the books here.

    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 and Vietri broke up in the middle of her pregnancy. She gave the baby to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was. She told Vietri the baby had been stillborn, but Vietri suspected 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 considering the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the decision.

    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 wrangling continues.

    Vietri said he will fight if the Alabama court reverses its decision.

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