By Rod McGuirk | Associated Press
CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian man was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison on Tuesday for the 1988 murder of an American who fell off a Sydney cliff known as a gay hangout.
Mathematician Scott Johnson’s death was initially ruled a suicide, but his family have been pushing for a further investigation. A coroner in 2017 uncovered a number of assaults, some fatal, where victims were targeted because they were thought to be gay.
Scott White, 51, pleaded guilty in January and could have been sentenced to life in prison.
Judge Helen Wilson said she had not found beyond a 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 models in place in the state of New South Wales in the late 1980s.
He must serve at least eight years and three months in prison before he can be granted 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 accompanied him to the top of a nearby cliff in North Head.
White’s ex-wife, Helen White, told police in 2019 that her then-husband bragged about beating gay people and said the only good gay man was a dead gay man.
She told the court on Monday that her husband told her that Johnson ran off the cliff. Scott White told police he was gay himself and was afraid his homophobic brother would find out.
Wilson said it was not possible to draw conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt about what happened at the top of the cliff.
“The offender struck Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and off the edge of the cliff,” Wilson said.
“In those seconds when he had to realize what was happening to him, Dr Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would be hitting the rocks below and aware of his fate,” Wilson added. “It was a terrible death.”
Wilson did not accept the defense lawyers’ argument that Helen White was motivated to report him to the police by a reward.
Under cross-examination on Monday, Helen White denied knowing about a one million Australian dollar ($704,000) reward for information about Johnson’s murder when she turned herself in to police in 2019 She said she only learned of a reward when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the sum in 2020.
Outside of court, Boston resident Steve Johnson thanked prosecutors and the justice system for ensuring White was sent to jail.
“We didn’t get compensation for Scott this week, but what Scott got was dignity,” the older brother told reporters.
Younger sister Rebecca Johnson said she was pleased with the sentence.
“Today I feel like we got answers and we got justice, and it’s for our brother and it’s for gay people who were beaten or killed in those days,” he said. she declared.
White had a violent crime record before and after the murder, but had not committed any offenses since 2008.
“You have to understand that the court is not convicting a violent and reckless young man for a targeted attack on a gay man,” Wilson said.
“Because of the time lapse, the culprit is no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists at another on the edge of a cliff. Nor does the court impose a sentence for a crime motivated by hatred of a particular sector of society. The evidence is too thin to support this,” Wilson added.
She said a sentence for the same crime today would be “much higher”.
White’s attorneys have appealed his conviction and hope he will be acquitted of the murder charge at a jury trial.
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the top of a cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified people who attacked him because they perceived him to be gay.”
The coroner also discovered that gangs of men were scouring various locations in Sydney looking for gay men to assault, resulting in the death of some victims. Some men were also robbed.
A coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson took his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.
Johnson studied at universities in California and Cambridge in Britain before moving to Australia in 1986 to live with her Australian partner Michael Noone.
They lived in Canberra where Johnson studied at the Australian National University which posthumously awarded him a doctorate. He was staying in Sydney with Noone’s parents when he died.