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Australian Scott White gets 9 years in prison for punching gay American Scott Johnson off Sydney cliff in 1988

  • USA

The Australian who confessed killing a gay American punching him off the top of a cliff in Sydney in 1988 was jailed for nine years on Thursday, ending the life of the victim’s family. 35 years of fighting for justice.

Scott Phillip White52, pleaded guilty in the New South Wales Supreme Court to the murder of Los Angeles-born Scott Johnson.

White pleaded guilty last year to murdering the then 27-year-old – a felony – and was convicted to more than 12 years in prison. But he changed his mind and overturned the murder conviction on appeal.

He was under pressure to take a plea deal after police intercepted a jailhouse phone call between White and his niece in October last year in which he admitted to slamming his victim into the top of a cliff.

Scott Johnson was killed in Australia in 1988.


Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Having already served part of his sentence, White will be eligible for parole in 2026.

“Not much is known about the death other than punching the cliff, falling off the cliff and the decades of pain and grief that followed,” Judge Robert Beech-Jones said during his sentencing on Thursday.

Johnson’s older brother, Steve Johnson, of Boston, has been fighting to get police to open a criminal investigation since the coroner ruled in 1989 that Scott Johnson took his own life.

A second coroner’s inquest in 2012 could not explain the death, and a third inquest ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson had been attacked by an unknown assailant or assailants because he was believed to be gay.

“I think our family has some peace and I would even say closure,” Steve Johnson told reporters outside court after the sentencing with his wife Rosemarie and daughter Tessa.

“The killer is behind bars and he’s admitted to doing it. I feel like I’ve done well by Scott,” he added.

Steve Johnson, a wealthy entrepreneur, has offered a reward of A$1 million ($667,000) in 2020 for information about his brother’s death, matching the reward already offered by police.

Steve Johnson praised White’s “brave” ex-wife Helen for testifying against her ex-husband, leading to his arrest in 2020. It is not yet clear whether she will collect the rewards.

“That was the break in the case,” Steve Johnson said.

Steve Johnson’s campaign for his brother helped launch a state government inquiry into the police’s historic indifference to anti-gay hate crimes and more than 100 unsolved deaths from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans congratulated Steve Johnson, whom he considers a “good friend”, on his campaign.

“Steve fought for almost 35 years. God, if only I had a brother like that,” Yeomans said outside court.

On 10 December 1988, White met Johnson in a pub and the pair went for a walk in North Head, which was known at the time as a popular gay area. White, then 18, punched Johnson in the heat of the argument, causing Johnson to stagger backward a goal and fall to his death.

The American was close to receiving a doctorate from the Australian National University, which has since been awarded to him posthumously.

“Dr. Johnson was an American citizen … He had everything to live for,” Beech-Jones said. “The criminal left (him) to die.”

A family photo provided by New South Wales Police shows Scott Johnson, who was pushed to his death from the top of a cliff in Sydney, Australia in 1988.

New South Wales Police Force

White, who now has early onset dementia due to alcohol abuse, was described as a “street kid” at the time of the murder.

“The offender was clearly an impaired but physically powerful young man,” Beech-Jones said. “However, he was not as broken as he is now.”

The death was initially thought to be a suicide, but police eventually opened an investigation into what they suspected was an anti-gay hate crime in 2012. In her now-overturned verdict of murder, Judge Helen Wilson found there was insufficient evidence to it turns out the attack was motivated by Johnson’s sexuality.

Beech-Jones said he could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the death was a “gay hate crime”.

“Answers to a number of other questions about how he died, why he died and what happened … some of those answers will never be given,” Beech-Jones said.

Steve Johnson told CBS Boston last year that the family was filled with gratitude for the investigators who worked so hard to bring justice for his brother.

“They’re miracle workers. They had almost no evidence to work with and they figured out how to solve it,” Johnson told the station.

Johnson told CBS Boston that he still talks to his brother as he runs through the streets of Cambridge — just like the two did years ago.

“Scott was easily the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known. At the same time, he was the most brilliant and humble,” he told the station.

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