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More time sought for Sam


The mediator in talks on the custody of the 4-year-old says a solution is possible if Alabama justices allow more time.


The retired judge presiding over talks between two families vying for custody of 4-year-old Sam Johnson will ask the Alabama Supreme Court to stop reviewing the case because he thinks they can reach a deal outside the courtroom.

A day after the first mediation in the so-called Baby Sam case, Mark Kennedy said Thursday the discussions between the two sides have been successful and that he believes they could eventually come to an agreement about custody if they have more time to talk.

"I'm hopeful and optimistic about the process," said Kennedy, a retired Alabama Supreme Court justice and longtime mediator.

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. He said he will not tell them details about Wednesday's all-day session, just that they need more time.

Sam's biological father, Christopher Vietri of New Port Richey, and his adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson, agreed with that decision, Kennedy said.

If the justices acquiesce, the case would be taken off their active docket, and they would not review the case again until Kennedy asks.

"I am hopeful the Supreme Court will give us ample opportunity and sufficient time," he said.

Wednesday's mediation took place after an unusual order of the 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.

"Everyone can assume the issues have not been resolved," Kennedy said.

After meeting for more than eight hours, the Johnsons and Vietri made two agreements: to meet again, and not to speak publicly until all mediation had been concluded.

The Johnsons and Vietri, who is now married and has another son, could not be reached Thursday. Their attorneys declined to comment.

Vietri's attorney, Larry Liebling, said last week that Vietri was going to ask the Johnsons if he could meet Sam for the first time while he was in Alabama. But Kennedy said Thursday that nothing -- including a visit with Sam -- would occur until after at least one more mediation session. No date has been set for that.

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.

After the second mediation session, Kennedy said, they would decide whether to keep meeting. At some point, he said he could ask the court either to take up the case again or look at a tentative agreement between the Johnsons and Vietri.

Sam, who turns 5 in March, has lived with the Johnsons in Tuscaloosa since he was 3 days old. The Johnsons and Vietri have been battling over who should have custody of him since he was 11 weeks old. Sam's biological mother gave him to a Tampa adoption agency and said she didn't know who the father was. She told Vietri the baby had been stillborn. He has been fighting in court to reclaim the child since soon after his birth.

Sam still has not been told about the custody fight, though he does know he was adopted and that he has biological parents in Florida.

2001 Jan 5