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Brother of Scott Johnson, gay American attacked on Sydney cliff in 1988, says killer deserves no leniency

A man who admitted killing American mathematician Scott Johnson by punching him from a cliff top at a gay meeting place in Sydney in 1988 deserves no leniency and should face the longest time in jail, the victim's brother said Tuesday.

Scott Phillip White, 52, appeared in the New South Wales state Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after pleading guilty to manslaughter. White had pleaded guilty to murder last year, but changed his mind and had that conviction overturned on appeal.

Australia Gay Hate
Steve Johnson, the brother of Scott Johnson, speaks to media outside the New South Wales Supreme Court in Sydney, Tuesday, June 6, 2023.  Dan Himbrechts / AP

Johnson's Boston-based older brother Steve Johnson said White had lost the family's sympathy by withdrawing his confession to murder.

He and his wife Rosemary "felt some compassion because of his generous plea. Today I have no sympathy," Steve Johnson said in a victim impact statement read out to the court.

Any gratitude the family felt was undone after White's conviction and jail sentence were overturned on appeal, he told reporters after the hearing.

"So I am hoping the judge will give him the stiffest sentence he possibly can," Steve Johnson said.

Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.

White's decision to flee the scene without calling the police had prolonged the family's grief and loss for decades, Johnson said.

"He didn't check on Scott. He didn't call for help. He notified no one. He simply let Scott die," Johnson said.

In her own statement, Rosemary Johnson spoke of her sweet, kind and gentle brother-in-law.

"You are loved, you are missed, your life mattered, and you have not been forgotten," she said.

In the heat of an argument on Dec. 10, 1988, White said he threw a punch at Scott Johnson, 27, causing him to stagger backward and fall to his death over a cliff at North Head that was known at the time to be a meeting place for gay men.

Los Angeles-born Scott Johnson's death was initially called a suicide, but his family pressed for further investigation. Almost three decades passed before New South Wales state police began investigating his death as a suspected gay hate crime.

A family photo provided by the New South Wales Police shows Scott Johnson, who in 1988 was pushed to his death from a clifftop in Sydney, Australia.  New South Wales Police Force

Prosecutor Brett Hatfield conceded the judge overseeing the new sentence may find there was not enough evidence to show White was motivated to attack Johnson because of Johnson's sexuality. However, Hatfield still sought a higher jail sentence, saying it was an unprovoked attack on a vulnerable individual who was naked in a remote location.

"It's a serious example of manslaughter entailing a significant degree of criminality," Hatfield said.

White's lawyer Tim Game urged for leniency because of his client's cognitive difficulties at the time of the crime as well as his dysfunctional background.

"He had just become an adult and his life was chaotic and a terrible mess," Game said.

White will be sentenced Thursday. He had been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for murder before that conviction was overturned.

Steve Johnson told CBS Boston last year that the family was filled with gratitude for investigators who worked so hard to bring justice for his brother.

"They're miracle workers. They had almost no evidence to work with and they figured out how to solve it," Johnson told the station.

Johnson told CBS Boston that he still talks to his brother while he runs the streets of Cambridge — just as the two did so many years ago.

"Scott was easily the kindest, gentlest person I've ever known. At the same time being the most brilliant and the most modest," he told the station.

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