Man in Australia sentenced to 12 years in prison over the murder of a gay American in 1988

Steve Johnson, right, with his sisters and his wife Rosemarie, second right, arrive at the Supreme Court in Sydney on Monday. Rick Rycroft / AP

On Tuesday, an Australian man was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison for the 1988 murder of an American who jumped from a Sydney cliff known as a gay meeting spot.

Scott Johnson's death has initially ruled a suicide, but his family asked for more research. In 2017, a coroner discovered a series of assaults, some fatal, where victims were targeted because they were believed to be gay.

In January, Scott White, 51, pled guilty and faced up to life in prison if convicted.

Justice Helen Wilson stated that she could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was motivated by homophobia. This aggravating circumstance would have resulted in a longer sentence. Additionally, she stated that she followed the more liberal sentencing guidelines in effect in the late 1980s in New South Wales.

Before he may be considered for release, he must serve at least eight years and three months in prison.

White was 18 and destitute when he met Johnson, 27, in a suburban Manly tavern in December 1988 and accompanied him to a nearby clifftop at North Head.

Helen White, White's ex-wife, told police in 2019 that her former husband boasted about assaulting gay males and declared that the only decent gay guy was a dead gay man.

On Monday, she said in court that her husband informed her that Johnson had fled the cliff. Scott White admitted to authorities that he was gay and fearful that his homophobic sibling would discover it.

Wilson stated that it was impossible to draw any judgments about what occurred on the clifftop beyond a reasonable doubt.

"The offender struck Dr. Johnson, knocking him backwards and causing him to fall off the cliff," Wilson stated.

"In those split seconds when he must have realized what was happening to him, Dr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he was about to collide with the rocks below, and aware of his doom," Wilson added. "It was a heinous demise."

Wilson rejected the defense attorneys' contention that Helen White was compelled to report him to the police by promising a reward.

Helen White denied during cross-examination on Monday that she was aware of a $1 million ($704,000) reward for information about Johnson's murder when she approached police in 2019. She stated that she learned of the prize only when the victim's brother, Steve Johnson, doubled the amount in 2020.

White had a history of violent crime before and following the murder but had not been convicted of a crime since 2008.

"It should be clear that the court is not sentencing a violent and irresponsible young man for a targeted attack on a gay man," Wilson said.

"As a result of time passing, the criminal is no longer the same enraged young man who lifted his hands to another on the precipice's brink. Neither is the court passing judgment on a crime motivated by prejudice against a certain segment of society. Wilson added, "The evidence is far too flimsy to support that."

She stated that a sentence for the same offense today would be "significantly increased."

White's attorneys have appealed his conviction, hoping for acquittal on the murder allegation following a jury trial.

Johnson "fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified individuals who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual," a coroner determined in 2017.

Additionally, the coroner discovered that men's gangs patrolled numerous Sydney sites looking for gay men to assault, resulting in several victims' deaths. Further, some males were robbed.

According to a coroner, Johnson committed himself in 1989, and a second coroner in 2012 could not determine how he died.

Johnson attended California universities and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom before relocating to Australia in 1986 to live with his Australian lover Michael Noone.

They lived in Canberra, where Johnson attended the Australian National University, earning a Ph.D. posthumously. He was staying at the home of Noone's parents in Sydney when he died.

Publish : 2022-05-03 16:35:00

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