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Australian Man Gets 12 Years In Gay American Mathmetician’s 1988 Cliff Killing

American doctoral student Scott Johnson was found dead at the bottom of a seaside cliff in 1988 and authorities considered it a suicide for nearly twenty years. Johnson's cause of death was revised in 2017 and Scott White was arrested for his murder in 2020.

By Dorian Geiger
Scott Johnson Pd

An Australian man has been sentenced to more than a decade in prison for the 1988 killing of a gay American mathmetician, whose death was wrongly ruled a suicide for years.

Scott White, 51, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months behind bars by a New South Wales Supreme Court judge on Tuesday, according to court records obtained by Oxygen.com.

White, who had once pleaded not guilty in the decades-old killing and faced a life sentence, reversed his plea during a surprise court admission in January. White must now serve at least eight years and three months in prison before he’s eligible for parole, per case records.

Scott Johnson, then a 27-year-old doctoral student, was studying at Australian National University, where he had moved to be with his partner. His body was found at the foot of a seaside cliff in a Sydney suburb — a place locally known as a meeting point for gay men — on Dec. 8, 1988.

Johnson's death was subsequently ruled a suicide. 

For years, his family fought for his case to be re-opened by local police and, at one point, they’d offered nearly $650,000 in Australian currency for information that might shed light on the American man’s murder.

It wasn’t until 2017, amid a new inquest following renewed scrutiny of the case, that the original findings surrounding Johnson’s death were officially disputed. White was ultimately arrested in 2020.

“The offender hit Dr. Johnson, causing him to stumble backwards and leave the cliff edge,” Justice Helen Wilson wrote in Tuesday's court decision. “In those seconds when he must have realized what was happening to him, Dr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware that he would strike the rocks below and conscious of his fate. It was a terrible death.”

Scott Johnson Ap

Wilson stated she didn’t find beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson’s killing was a gay hate crime — a potential aggravating factor that could have prolonged White's sentence.

The presiding judge also acknowledged a number of other mitigating factors that went into her determination of White's sentence, including the gap in time between Johnson's death and White’s 2020 arrest. White was only 18 at the time of Johnson’s death. 

“It should be understood that the Court is not sentencing a violent and aggressive young man for a targeted attack upon a gay man,” Wilson also wrote. “Because of the lapse of time the offender is no longer the same angry young man who raised his fists to another on the edge of a cliff. Neither is the Court imposing [a] sentence for a crime motivated by hatred for a particular sector of society; the evidence does not support that approach.”

The judge further applied more lenient sentencing patterns consistent with those in effect the time of Johnson’s death in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She also concluded that White, who shows signs of cognitive impairment, had “demonstrated feelings of remorse” for his involvement in Johnson’s death more than three decades ago.

“He showed some level of emotion in discussing the events and told one of the officers that he would ‘never cope with it,’ Wilson wrote in court documents. “This suggests a level of distress concerning what he had done.”

White also told a forensic psychiatrist last June that he felt sorry for Johnson’s surviving brother, Steve Johnson, and expressed hope that a guilty verdict could "put the family to rest,” court records show.

Days prior to his plea reversal in January, White had told his attorneys the pressure of the trial had been too much to bear.

“I can see the brother there, the police pointing me out. It's too much,” White told his lawyers on Jan. 10, according to transcripts of their conversation contained in separate court documents. “I have had no sleep, no shower, four hours in a cell. I just want to get this over and done with.”

White shocked courtroom onlookers — including Johnson’s family — when he spoke up in court days later and told the judge, “Guilty, I’m guilty, guilty.”

The stunning confession was a welcome reprieve, especially for Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, who traveled to Sydney from the U.S. to sit in on court proceedings.

“No one was prepared for that, including me,” Steve Johnson said in January, the New York Times reported. “I’m grateful to Scott White for sparing us the trial, sparing us the months, sparing us more uncertainty.”

In 2018, an Australian parliamentary review of 88 suspicious deaths from 1976 to 2000 found that 27 men were likely murdered over their homosexuality by gangs.

White’s lawyers, Belinda Rigg and Bill Neild, weren’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com by telephone and email on Tuesday morning.

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