An Australian court has sentenced a man to 12 years in prison for the 1988 murder of U.S. mathematician Scott Johnson, a gay man, in what has become one of Australia’s most infamous anti-LGBTQ crimes over the nearly three-and-a-half decades it has taken to close the case.
Scott Phillip White, 51, had previously pleaded guilty to murdering Johnson shortly after his arrest in connection with the crime in 2020. Johnson’s naked body was found lying among the rocks below a cliff overlooking a beach in Manly, a suburb of Sydney, in December 1988. His clothes were found neatly folded at the top of the cliff.
Although Johnson’s death was initially ruled a suicide by a local coroner in 1989, a subsequent inquest into the death in 2012 was inconclusive, while a 2017 inquest re-examining the crime found that the 27-year-old was either pushed over the cliff or fell while trying to escape assailants, reports CBS News.
In the decades since Johnson’s death, it has been revealed that at the time of Johnson’s death, gangs of young men would often roam the cliffs in the Greater Sydney area — which were often used as “cruising” spots due to their remote location — searching for gay men to attack or rob.
Local police forces have admitted that homophobic attitudes held by officers may have played a role in their failure to close cases involving men who were either pushed or fell from the cliffs.
Ultimately, at least 27 deaths between the 1970s and 2000 that were initially ruled suicides have been reclassified as homophobic hate crimes, although LGBTQ advocates believe the total number of victims in the colloquially-dubbed “cliff murders” that occurred during those decades is closer to 80.
When police charged White in connection with Johnson’s death in 2020, they had hoped to uncover information on several of those other unsolved murders, which may or may not be connected.
After initially pleading guilty to murdering Johnson in January, White later tried to walk back both his guilty plea and a confession made during a videotaped interrogation while in police custody, in which he claimed to have pushed a man over the edge of a cliff. During that interrogation, White told police he had lied to arresting officers when he claimed to have tried to grab Johnson to prevent him from falling to his death.
On Monday, the court heard testimony from White’s ex-wife, Helen White, who said she asked him two different times about Johnson’s murder, the first time in 1988, according to Australia’s ABC News.
“I remember asking him if this was one of the gay men that he’d bashed, and he said, ‘Oh, that girly-looking poofter,'” Helen White testified, using a slur for gay men. She that her husband “quite often bragged about bashing poofters.”
She claimed to have confronted White about the murder a second time in 2008, asking him: “Did you do this?”
She claimed he replied: “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.”
Helen White also said her husband claimed he didn’t push or throw Johnson off the cliff, but said it wasn’t his fault “the dumb c*nt ran off the cliff,” to which she allegedly responded: “Well, it is if you chased him.”
Crown Prosecutor Brett Hatfield told the court that White had previously admitted to his children that he used to go “poofter bashing” before correcting himself and claiming it was his brother who regularly engaged in gay bashing, not him.
“It’s an admission to being involved in it himself before quickly stepping back from it in the subsequent statement,” Hatfield said.
White’s lawyer, Belinda Rigg, argued in court that Helen White’s testimony about Johnson’s alleged statements regarding his participation in gay bashings was fabricated.
Rigg also claimed her client admitted to police that he had gone to the cliffs at Johnson’s suggestion. She argued that her client, who was 18 at the time of the crime, is gay himself, and had been struggling with his sexuality, but was afraid of backlash from his homophobic brother. As a result, she argued, her client’s culpability in Johnson’s death should be reduced because of his compromised intellectual and psychiatric state, as well as his young age.
In sentencing White to 12 years in prison, Justice Helen Wilson said that White’s “violent act” — regardless of whether he physically pushed him or chased him to the edge of the cliff, both actions he has admitted to at different times, depending on the audience — was the direct cause of Johnson’s fall and subsequent death.
She added that White’s indifference to Johnson’s death may have been “driven by the offender’s own self-loathing” as a gay man,” but the court did not hear any evidence as to whether Johnson’s death constitutes a hate crime.
“It is tragic that Mr Johnson and all of Dr Johnson’s loved ones have had to endure this bitter pain. The sentence to be imposed upon the offender is unlikely to end that grief; perhaps it may bring some peace,” Wilson said.
Johnson’s brother, Steve, who had never believed the coroner’s 1989 finding of suicide, has been credited with relentlessly pursuing justice for Scott’s death. Over the years, Steve Johnson traveled back and forth to Australia, placed pressure on police and local politicians, hired his own investigators, and even doubled the monetary reward offered for tips related to the case.
“I think what we got this week was fairness,” Steve Johnson told media outside the court following White’s sentencing.
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