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Australian gets 12 years for anti-gay killing of an American in 1988


Steve Johnson with his sisters, Terry and Rebecca, and his wife, Rosemarie, second from right, while arriving at the Supreme Court in Sydney, Australia, on Monday.

By Manan Luthra


An Australian man who in January was convicted of killing a gay American doctoral student more than three decades ago by pushing him off a cliff received a sentence Tuesday of 12 years.


In 1988, the American, Scott Johnson, 27, was a graduate student in mathematics who had moved to Australia to be with his partner. On Dec. 8 of that year, Johnson met an Australian man, Scott White, at a pub in Sydney, and the two went to an open cliff face frequented by gay men. Johnson’s body was discovered at the bottom of the cliff two days later.


The original inquest into Johnson’s death ruled it a suicide.


His brother Steve was skeptical. After he became aware of a 2005 inquest into the deaths of three men from the same period under similar circumstances, he hired an investigative journalist to look into his brother’s death.


Former Australian officials have said the police at that time were often hostile toward gay men and did not properly investigate their deaths.


Steve Johnson successfully petitioned for a second inquest in 2012, which overturned the suicide ruling and recommended that the police reinvestigate the case.


A third inquest was conducted in 2017, which concluded that Johnson was the victim of an anti-gay hate crime and fell off the cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence. After a three-year investigation by the New South Wales police, White was charged with murder in May 2020.


White originally pleaded not guilty, but in January he unexpectedly changed his plea.


Justice Helen Wilson, a Supreme Court judge in the state of New South Wales who delivered the sentence, said she took into account a number of factors. Among them: White’s personal circumstances, including the fact that he had subsequently been law-abiding and was cognitively impaired.


White, 51, will have to serve at least eight years and three months in jail before being eligible for parole.


Many members of the victim’s family attended the sentencing in person. Steve Johnson, a tech entrepreneur who had spent decades bringing attention to his brother’s death, said it gave them peace.


“I think all of us can now feel like we’ve brought this to a conclusion — my brother’s killer is behind bars for a good long time,” he said.


Between 1970 and 2010, at least 88 members of the gay community were killed by various local gangs. Police investigations into these deaths continue, and last November the New South Wales government announced an inquiry into them, with details to be announced shortly.

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