CANBERRA – An Australian man was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison Tuesday for the 1988 murder of an American who fell off a Sydney cliff that was known as a gay meeting place.
The death of mathematician Scott Johnson was initially called a suicide, but his family pressed for further investigation. A coroner in 2017 found a number of assaults, some fatal, where the victims had been targeted because they were thought to be gay.
Scott White, 51, pleaded guilty in January and could have been sentenced to up to life in prison.
Justice Helen Wilson said she did not find beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, an aggravating factor that would have led to a longer sentence. She also said she applied more lenient sentencing patterns in place in New South Wales state in the late 1980s.
He must serve at least eight years and three months in prison before he can be considered for parole.
White was 18 and homeless when he met 27-year-old Los Angeles-born Johnson at a bar in suburban Manly in December 1988 and went with him to a nearby cliff top at North Head.
White’s former wife Helen White told police in 2019 that her then-husband had bragged about beating gay men and had said the only good gay man was a dead gay man.
She told the court on Monday that her husband had told her Johnson had run off the cliff. Scott White told police that he was himself gay and frightened that his homophobic brother would find out.
Wilson said it was not possible to draw any conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt about what had happened at the clifftop.
“The offender hit Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and leave the cliff edge,” Wilson said.
“In those seconds when he must have realized what was happening to him, Dr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would strike the rocks below and conscious of his fate,” Wilson added. “It was a terrible death.”
Wilson did not accept the defense lawyers’ argument that Helen White had been motivated to report him to police by a reward.
Under cross-examination on Monday, Helen White denied she had been aware of a 1 million Australian dollar ($704,000) reward for information on Johnson’s murder when she went to police in 2019. She said she only became aware of a reward when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the sum in 2020.
Outside court, Boston resident Steve Johnson thanked prosecutors and the judicial system for ensuring White was sent to prison.
“We didn’t get compensation for Scott this week but what Scott got was dignity,” the older sibling told reporters.
Younger sister Rebecca Johnson said she was satisfied with the sentence.
“Today I feel like we've had answers and we've had justice, and that's for our brother and that's for gay men who were bashed or killed in that era,” she said.
White had a record of violent crime before and after the murder but had not committed any offense since 2008.
“It should be understood that the court is not sentencing a violent and reckless young man for a targeted attack on a gay man,” Wilson said.
“Because of the lapse of time, the offender is no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists to another on the edge of a cliff. Neither is the court imposing a sentence for a crime motivated by hatred for a particular sector of society. The evidence is too slender to support that,” Wilson added.
She said a sentence for the same crime today would be “much higher.”
White's lawyers have appealed his conviction and hope he will be acquitted of the murder charge in a jury trial.
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”
The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some men were also robbed.
A coroner had ruled in 1989 that Johnson had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.
Johnson studied at universities in California and at Cambridge in Britain before moving to Australia in 1986 to live with his Australian partner Michael Noone.
They lived in Canberra where Johnson studied at the Australian National University which posthumously awarded him a Ph.D. He was staying a Noone’s parents’ Sydney home when he died.