Australian man sentenced to 12 years after admitting to pushing gay American off cliff in 1988

·3-min read
Scott White, 51, during his arrest by New South Wales police in 2020 (New South Wales Police / Twitter)
Scott White, 51, during his arrest by New South Wales police in 2020 (New South Wales Police / Twitter)

An Australian man has avoided a life sentence for the murder of a gay American who he met at a bar in Sydney in 1988 before pushing to his death from a cliff.

Scott White, 51, pleaded guilty in January to murdering Scott Johnson, 27, and was sentenced by the New South Wales Supreme Court on Tuesday for the death, which was initially called a suicide before the case was examined.

Speaking on Tuesday, Justice Helen Wilson said although a sentence for the same crime today would be “much higher,” the Australian – who has since backtracked on his admission of guilt – was “no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists to another on the edge of a cliff.”

Neither did the court “find beyond reasonable doubt” that the murder was a hate crime, Ms Wilson said of an aggravating factor that would have led to a longer sentence for White.

“It should be understood that the court is not sentencing a violent and reckless young man for a targeted attack on a gay man,” Ms Wilson said. “Neither is the court imposing a sentence for a crime motivated by hatred for a particular sector of society. The evidence is too slender to support that”.

White – who was 18 and homeless when he met Johnson at a bar in Manly, a northern suburb of Sydney , in December 1988 – told police following his arrest in 2020 that he himself was gay and was scared of his older brother knowing.

Helen White, his ex-wife, told the court her husband claimed Johnson ran off the cliff and that she had questioned him about whether he was responsible for Johnson’s death.

Ms White earlier told police her husband often “bragged” about attacking gay men in his youth and said the only good gay man was a dead gay man.

The cliff where Johnson fell from was a well known gay cruising spot, and a coroner ruled in 2017 that Johnson “fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”

The sentencing of White, who has appealed his conviction, attracted significant condemnation among the LGBT+ community in Australia and elsewhere, as well as others.

“Scott White murdered gay man Scott Johnson over 30 years ago in Sydney,” wrote an Australian Labor Party member on Twitter. “It was a viscous homophobic hate crime. What’s he get? 12 years with 8 years parole. What utter b***shit! Call this justice????”

White, who was sentenced to a minimum of eight years and three months in prison with potential parole, had faced life imprisonment before his sentencing.

“The value of a gay man’s life,” added another Twitter user. “Murdered 33 years ago, Scott Johnson’s murderer gets non-parole period of 8 years 3 months. Now, what about the other 80+ gay men murdered during that era?”

A third person asked: “So, a non-parole period of eight years and three months for the hate-crime of murdering a gay man by throwing him off a cliff. What would the sentence have been had he thrown a straight football ‘hero’ off a cliff? Hmm?”

The corner in the case said gangs of homophobic men were roaming the streets of Sydney searching for gay men to assault during the 1980s.

If White’s appeal is successful, he could be tried by a jury.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

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