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    Court orders talks on Sam

    The meaning of the Alabama high court's order for mediation over the adopted boy is unclear.

    By ANITA KUMAR

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    The five-year fight between two families over custody of little Sam Johnson seemed just about over last month when Alabama's highest court said the boy should go to his biological father in Florida.

    But a highly unusual move Thursday by the Alabama Supreme Court calls the justices' initial ruling into question.

    The court ordered the two sides to undergo mediation, a common practice during the early stages of a civil case but almost unheard of after trials have been held and appellate courts have ruled.

    It's unclear what the court's decision means, but attorneys for Sam's adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson, believe it can only help them.

    "Of all the things they could have said, this is a good thing," said Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney. "It can't be bad."

    Christopher Vietri's attorney downplayed the impact of the court order for mediation for the first time in the history of the so-called Baby Sam case.

    "Nothing's happening," said Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's Alabama attorney. Patton would not comment further except to say she didn't know what the court order meant.

    The Alabama Supreme Court gave the Johnsons and Vietri until Jan. 10 to try to work out a solution with Mark Kennedy, a retired justice, serving as the mediator.

    "In the event there is no solution of this matter within 21 days, he should report to this court on the status of this mediation process," the court said in a terse two-sentence order sent to attorneys Thursday.

    Alabama law allows the court to consider only the Johnsons' and Vietri's legal rights, not Sam's best interests. That will not be the case, though, during mediation.

    "I think (the justices) have realized the ramifications of their decision," Marchese said. "They've recognized a human life is involved."

    Sam, who turns 5 in March, has lived with the Johnsons in Tuscaloosa, Ala., since he was 3 days old. He has never met Vietri of New Port Richey or been told about the custody fight but does know he was adopted and that he has biological parents in Florida.

    The Johnsons asked the state Supreme Court this month to reconsider its decision to give Sam to Vietri -- one of their only remaining legal options. The court has not ruled on that request and is not likely to do so until it hears whether the two sides can work out a deal.

    Marchese said he expects the two sides to talk about custody, visitation and even how to tell Sam that he may end up leaving the only home he has ever known. The Johnsons and Vietri have publicly said they would allow the other party to visit Sam if they had custody, though they have not negotiated with each other.

    The Johnsons could not be reached for comment. Reached while Christmas shopping, Vietri said Thursday evening that he did not know about the order and did not comment further. Vietri is now married and has a 3-year-old son.

    The nine justices, who voted 5-4 on their decision to give Sam to Vietri, were unanimous in ordering mediation. The court will undergo a dramatic shift to the political right in January, but the current justices have enough time -- if they want to take it -- to decide whether to reconsider the case before they leave office.

    Attorneys for the Johnsons and Vietri probably will meet with Kennedy in Montgomery, Ala., after Christmas. Also expected to attend is Karen Dice, Sam's court-appointed attorney, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, who favors the Johnsons' having custody of Sam, will not be represented at the meetings, said Ted Millison, her Tampa attorney. She filed a petition this month asking that she be allowed to reclaim Sam as a way to keep him from Vietri if the Johnsons are not allowed to keep him.

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

    Gawronski, 19, 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 Alabama court, but only if Sam can stay with them while the legal wrangling continues. Vietri said that he will fight if the Alabama court reverses its decision.

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