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 cliff in Sydney, known as a gay meeting place.
Mathematician Scott Johnson’s death was initially called a suicide, but his family insisted on further investigation. A medical examiner in 2017 found a series of assaults, some fatal, in which victims were targeted because they were deemed gay.
Scott White, 51, pleaded guilty in January and could have been sentenced to life in prison.
Judge Helen Wilson said she found beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, an aggravating circumstance that would have led to a longer sentence. She also claimed to have 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 considered for parole.
White was 18 and homeless when he met Johnson, 27, born in Los Angeles, at a bar on the outskirts of Manly in December 1988 and went with him to a nearby cliff in North Head.
White’s ex-wife Helen White told police in 2019 that her then husband had bragged about beating up gay men and said the only good gay man was a dead gay man.
She told the court Monday that her husband had told her Johnson had escaped from the cliff. Scott White told police that he himself was gay and was afraid his homophobic brother would find out.
Wilson said it was not possible to draw conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt about what had happened at the cliff top.
“The offender hit Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and leave the cliff’s edge,” Wilson said.
“In those seconds that he must have realized what was happening to him, Dr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he was going to hit the rocks below and aware of his fate,” added Wilson. “It was a terrible death.”
Wilson did not accept the defense attorneys’ argument that Helen White had been motivated to report him to the police with a reward.
During cross-examination on Monday, Helen White denied that she was aware of an A $ 1 million ($ 704,000) reward for information on Johnson’s murder when she went to the police in 2019. She said she learned about it. of a reward only when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the sum in 2020.
White had a history of violent crime before and after the murder, but hadn’t committed any crime since 2008.
“It should be clear that the court is not convicting a violent and reckless young man for a targeted attack on a homosexual,” Wilson said.
“Due to the passage of time, the offender is no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists to another on the edge of a cliff. Even the court does not impose a conviction for a hate crime against a particular sector of society. The evidence is too little to support it, “Wilson added.
He said a sentence for the same crime today would be “much higher”.
White’s lawyers have challenged his conviction and hope he will be acquitted of the murder charge in a jury trial.
A medical examiner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell off a cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified people who assaulted him because they perceived him as homosexual.”
The coroner also discovered that gangs of men roamed various locations in Sydney looking for gay men to attack, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some men were also robbed.
A coroner ruled in 1989 that Johnson had committed suicide, while a second coroner in 2012 couldn’t explain how he died.
Johnson studied at the universities of California and Cambridge in Great 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 PhD. He was in Sydney at Noone’s parents’ house when he died.