An Australian man, Scott Phillip White, 51, has been sentenced to 12 years and seven months in jail for the murder of a US gay man, Scott Johnson, in Sydney in 1988. White will be eligible for parole after eight years and three months.
Johnson, 27, was a US citizen who went to Australia to study for his math doctorate and be with his Australian partner, Michael Noone. His body was found at the foot of cliffs at Manly’s North Head Beach.
Police at the time were quick to dismiss his death as a suicide. However, Johnson’s friends and family never believed this to be the case. They pointed to the fact gay bashings were known to take place at that location.
Police eventually reopened the case, acknowledging it was likely Johnson had been attacked.
In 2019, authorities offered an AUS$1million reward to anyone for information. This was later doubled to AUS$2million when Johnson’s own brother, Steve, put forward some of his own money to help find those responsible.
White was arrested after his former wife came forward and told cops he’d bragged about killing Johnson to her, telling her, “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.”
White was arrested last year and initially denied responsibility. However, at a pre-trial hearing in January, he changed his plea to guilty.
White’s lawyers had been trying to get his guilty plea withdrawn, saying he had “cognitive impairment” whilst being held on remand.
Yesterday, at a pre-sentence hearing, members of Johnson’s family gave witness impact statements about the loss of their beloved brother.
White’s lawyer told the judge that her client now identified as gay, and at the time of Johnson’s killing, was terrified of his family finding out. She also asked the judge to bear in mind that different limits on murder sentences were in place in Australia in 1988, when White had just turned 18. The lawyer argued White should be sentenced based on the limits at the time of the crime.
The judge appears to have acted upon this latter point. In sentencing, Justice Helen Wilson noted that White met Johnson in a bar and they went together to the beachside cliffs at Manly. They then got into a disagreement and a punch from White caused Johnson to fall to his death.
“[White] did a violent act and that act is the direct cause of Dr. Johnson leaving the clifftop in terror,” she said.
“It was a terrible death … Mr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware he would strike the rocks below and conscious of his fate.”
She said White had shown “reckless indifference to human life”. However, there was insufficient evidence proving “beyond reasonable doubt” that the killing was a gay hate crime, even if it was “very likely” that Johnson’s sexuality was a factor.
Justice Wilson also said the attack was “not planned” and could have been motivated by “self-loathing.”
She said her sentence took into account White’s recent guilty plea, cognitive impairment and a dysfunctional upbringing.
Afterward, outside the court, Johnson’s brother, Steve, told reporters the family were grateful for the opportunity to travel to Australia and face their brother’s killer in court.
“We came to Australia this week and we were given a chance to express in court what we lost and the impact that Scott White had on our families… the impact that he had on my brother… and the beautiful man he destroyed,” Johnson said.
“What we got this week was fairness.
“We didn’t get compensation for Scott this week but what Scott got was dignity.”
He also said that he hoped police would look at other unsolved cases involving gay men.
“I think bringing Scott White to justice should bring hope to the other families, but it’s also an example to the commission that these 30-year-old cases can still be solved and that it matters to bring perpetrators to justice after this length of time. We’re not so old yet that we can’t feel peace and relief.”
Meanwhile, White’s lawyers filed an appeal of the conviction after the judge dismissed their attempt to withdraw their client’s guilty plea.