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Families not able to agree on Sam


After almost five years of lawyers and courts, the families try mediation. Now they'll try again.


MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- After more than eight hours of talks, the two families vying for custody of little Sam Johnson emerged from their first court-ordered mediation session with no agreement in hand but a willingness to try again.

The mediator, retired state Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy, would not reveal what they discussed but confirmed that mediation is not over and would continue at a later date.

Sam's adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson, and his biological father, Christopher Vietri, stood beside Kennedy as he spoke, wearing the same somber expressions they wore throughout the day.

"We're just staying positive about our expectations and our hopes," Mark Johnson said as he walked up the courthouse steps after lunch. "We just hope we can work something out."

But the Johnsons and Vietri, who drove from New Port Richey, declined to comment on the case.

"We think it's a private matter," Tracy Johnson said during a break.

The mediation in the so-called Baby Sam case took place following an unusual order of the Alabama Supreme Court, which in November awarded custody of Sam to Vietri. The Johnsons asked the justices to reconsider their decision, and the court responded by telling the two families to get together and talk.

The mediation session, held in the Alabama Supreme Court building just down the street from the Capitol in downtown Montgomery, was closed. Kennedy told reporters gathered in the lobby that the Johnsons and Vietri had signed a written agreement on Wednesday that they would not speak until after mediation had been concluded.

After almost five years of using lawyers, legal briefs and courts to wage their battles, the Johnsons and Vietri sat down in a room together for the first to try to work out a deal.

It is unclear whether they will meet again before the deadline set by the state Supreme Court justices for a progress report. Kennedy said he will give a written report to the court on Tuesday, the last day the nine justices will meet before four of them leave office this month.

Mediation is common during the early stages of a case but almost unheard of after trials have been held and appellate courts have ruled. The discussions, conducted by a neutral, third party, are not binding and either side could stop the meetings at any time.

While Alabama law allows the court to consider only the Johnsons' and Vietri's rights, Sam's best interests can be considered during mediation.

Sam, who turns 5 in March, has lived with the Johnsons in Tuscaloosa since he was 3 days old.

He still has not been told about the custody fight, though he does know he was adopted and that he has biological parents in Florida. He has started to see a child psychologist with the Johnsons.

Vietri, wearing a multicolored golf shirt and a light jacket in the unseasonably cold weather, arrived at the courthouse with his attorneys, Martha Jane Patton of Birmingham and Larry Liebling of Clearwater. Vietri, who is now married and has a 3-year-old son, drove from Florida in a green van equipped with his son's child seat in the back.

The Johnsons, dressed more formally, took the employee elevator up, avoiding reporters from across the state who were camped outside the building. They were joined by their five attorneys.

The Johnsons and Vietri, who have not spoken or been in the same room for almost three years, waited for Kennedy together in the formal domed courtroom for about 15 minutes. Kennedy explained the rules of the session and talked about the background of the case and then, less than 45 minutes later, they were whisked away to separate conference rooms, where they remained the rest of the day.

Kennedy, dressed in a navy blue suit and gold tie, walked back and forth between the rooms as he tried to broker a compromise in the controversial case that has divided the state and called into question the meaning of family. He is a former family court judge who has presided over many mediations.

Karen Dice, who was appointed by the court to represent Sam, attended the mediation session. She favors the court reconsidering the case, according to court documents. Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, who favors the Johnsons keeping custody of Sam, was not at Wednesday's meeting.

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

Gawronski, 19 at the time, and Vietri broke up in the middle of her pregnancy. She gave the baby to a Tampa adoption agency, telling them 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.

In 1997, a Tuscaloosa judge ruled the Johnsons should have Sam. An appeals court upheld the decision, but in November, after considering the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the decision.

2001 Jan 4