35 years later, the man guilty of killing a homosexual man was convicted: he threw him off a cliff

Steve Johnson, right, with his sisters Terry, left, and Rebecca and his wife Rosemarie, second right, arrive at the High Court in Sydney on May 2, 2022 for a sentencing hearing for the murder. Scott Johnson, Steve, the brother of Terry and Rebecca. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, file) (Rick Rycroft/)

An Australian pleaded guilty Thursday to the manslaughter of an American who died when he fell 35 years ago from the top of a Sydney cliff that was known as a gay hangout, and the victim’s family welcomed the latest twist. in his life, after a long campaign for justice.

The admission of Scott White in the New South Wales state Supreme Court comes three months after an appeals court overturned his conviction for the murder of Scott Johnson.

The Los Angeles-born Johnson’s family had fought for years to overturn an initial finding that the 27-year-old mathematician had taken his own life in 1988.

Johnson’s older brother, who lives in Boston, Steve Johnson, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Thursday’s proceedings “might be the most emotional moment yet”. The brother had watched the Sydney court hearing online from the United States.

“The police work that you continued through the appeal and after the appeal to get that last piece of evidence that got you to the table… so that we could negotiate this, I’m incredibly grateful,” Johnson said.

He did not say what the new evidence was. But the media reported that Police intercepted a prison phone call between White and a relative in October last year in which he confessed to beating his victim on top of the cliff.

Johnson said he had already read the facts of the crime agreed to by prosecutors and defense attorneys as part of a plea agreement that will go before a judge when White returns to court on June 6 for sentencing.

scott johnson crime australia
Scott Johnson was killed after being pushed off a cliff in Australia. (Photo by Handout / NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE / AFP) (HANDOUT /)

“Reading the black and white of his confession, in which he says he threw the first punch, which I would imagine was the only punch and my brother must have been very close to the cliff … it makes me quite upset,” Johnson said. .

Johnson said one question that remained unanswered on his mind was whether White had gone to the North Head cliff on a Friday night in the summer of December 9, 1988 “to hunt down my brother.”

A coroner ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson “fell off a cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence” by unknown assailants who “targeted him because they perceived him to be gay.”

The coroner also discovered that gangs of men were roaming various locations in Sydney looking for gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some people were also robbed.

It was the third investigation into the tragedy after pressure from the family. One coroner initially ruled in 1989 that the openly gay man had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 was unable to explain how he died.

Steve Johnson, a wealthy businessman, in 2020 offered a reward of A$1 million (US$704,000) for information to match a reward already offered by the police.

White, 52, was arrested in Sydney that year and pleaded not guilty to the murder of Johnson, who was an Australian National University PhD student living in the capital Canberra when he died.

An Australian pleaded guilty to killing an American gay man in 1988
FILE – Steve Johnson, right, and his wife Rosemarie arrive at the High Court in Sydney, Australia, on May 2, 2022, for a sentencing hearing in the murder of Scott Johnson, Steve’s brother. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, file) (Rick Rycroft/)

Police suggested that the reward led to the arrest, saying they expected it to be collected after White’s conviction.

White surprised his lawyers in January of last year by pleading guilty to murder during a pretrial hearing.

About 20 minutes later, White signed a statement saying he was “confused” when he pleaded guilty, that he had not caused Johnson’s death and that he wanted to plead not guilty.

But the judge recorded the guilty plea and White was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison.

In sentencing White, the judge said she did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, which would have led to a longer prison term.

In November, three judges at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney ruled that White should have been allowed to reverse his guilty plea, quashing his conviction and sentence.

The justices said there was a question about White’s guilt of murder that could have been raised at trial. A trial could have resulted in his acquittal or conviction of him on the misdemeanor charge of manslaughter.

scott johnson crime australia
A coroner ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson “fell off a cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence” by unknown assailants who “targeted him because they perceived him to be gay.” (Photo by Handout / NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE / AFP) (HANDOUT /)

White pleaded not guilty Thursday to murder and guilty to manslaughter. Prosecutors had previously agreed with White’s lawyers to accept the guilty plea.

Police Deputy Inspector Peter Yeomans told reporters outside court that the conviction vindicated the Johnson family’s long fight for justice.

“Look, a very emotional day for everyone, especially the Johnson family, who have been through a very traumatic time over the last 34 years and today really stands up for that family, which they have done for many, many years,” Yeomans said. . .

“We’re very, very happy from a police standpoint, but obviously, more importantly to the Johnson family, they’ve just finished a very, very long saga in their lives, some 34 years that’s lasted, that they’ve fought for. justice, and finally (has) come to fruition today,” he added.

A New South Wales government inquiry began hearing evidence in November of unsolved deaths resulting from gay hate crimes spanning four decades in Australia’s most populous state, where police were notoriously indifferent to such violence.

The violence against gay men in sydney was particularly frequent from mid-1980s to early 1990s due to increased hostility and fear stemming from the AIDS epidemic, an HIV support group, ACON, told the inquiry.

The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes in New South Wales will report on June 30.

Steve Johnson did not immediately respond to The Associated Press’ email request for comment.

(with information from AP)

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He was thrown from a hill in 1988: an arrest 32 years later revives a crime that shames Australia