The Alabama Supreme Court has reaffirmed its confusing ruling in the controversial adoption case of Sam Johnson, a move that once again delays the decision of who will raise the 5-year-old boy.
For the second time, the state's highest court sent the case back to the trial judge "for proceedings to determine the proper custody."
That may leave the door open for Tuscaloosa Circuit Judge Philip Lisenby to reconsider the entire case, but attorneys for the two families vying for custody of Sam just don't know.
Lisenby ruled in 1998 for Mark and Tracy Johnson, who have raised Sam in Tuscaloosa since he was 3 days old. But the state Supreme Court justices overturned that decision, ruling that Sam should live with Christopher Vietri, Sam's biological father in New Port Richey.
Lisenby likely will hold a custody hearing before making a decision but whatever the ruling, there is no guarantee that it could not be appealed to higher courts again.
"It's back to the court again," said Mary Stephens, a child advocate with the non-profit group, Hear My Voice, who has worked closely with the Johnsons for years. "We've waited five years. It might be five more."
Sam, who has been seeing a child psychologist for months, has been told some, but not much, about the custody fight. He met Vietri for the first time in February.
"All I can say is I hope they will do the right thing," Vietri said Tuesday. He declined to comment further.
But in a letter to the editor printed in the Tuscaloosa News earlier this month, Vietri said he was disappointed to not have any recent contact with Sam or even receive a Father's Day card from him this year.
"If you see my son Sam, wherever it may be, please give him a hug for me and tell him that it is from his birth dad," he wrote to Tuscaloosa residents. "Please, I cannot be there to give it to him but I wish I could be there all the time."
Vietri's Florida attorney, Larry Liebling of Clearwater, declined to comment Tuesday. His Alabama attorney, Martha Jane Patton, was out of the office and could not be reached.
The Johnsons, who are heading out of town for a family vacation with Sam, also could not be reached. Their attorneys declined to comment.
Alabama law allows Lisenby to consider Sam's best interests, while the Supreme Court can only consider the Johnsons' and Vietri's rights. But before arguing that Sam would be better off staying with the Johnsons, the couple must overcome a strong legal presumption that a natural parent is the best parent.
Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, and Vietri broke up in the middle of her pregnancy. She gave the baby to a Tampa adoption agency 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.
Both sides asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider its prior ruling and clarify it before the case proceeds to the lower court. The justices declined in a brief statement but did not explain why.
_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.