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Man jailed for 1988 murder of gay man Scott Johnson in Sydney

The verdict comes 33 years after Scott Johnson's body was found at the foot of cliffs in Sydney.

By Alastair James

Words: Alastair James

A man has been jailed for more than 12 years for the murder of a gay man, Scott Johnson, in Australia 33 years ago.

On Tuesday (3 May) Scott White was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in jail for killing the American graduate, who was 27 when he died in 1988.

In January White, 50, pled guilty to the murder, ending one of Australia’s most notorious murder cases.

Scott Johnson

In the ruling on Tuesday, a judge decided that there was not enough evidence to determine that the murder was a homophobic hate crime, as per the BBC.

Johnson’s family had long campaigned for the death to be investigated as such after it was initially believed to have been a suicide. 

According to the BBC, White told police he and Johnson had met at a bar in December 1988 when he was 18.

The two men had gone to North Head cliffs in Manly, a popular gay cruising spot, where White said they got into a fight and Dr. Johnson fell.

But Justice Helen Wilson told the New South Wales Supreme Court White had struck Johnson knowing he would fall to his death.

She called White “street kid” who “dealt with disagreements with his fists” but was “no longer the same angry young man”. 

Scott Johnson

Johnson was a mathematician who had moved to Sydney in the late ’80s to be with his partner. He was close to completing his PhD when his naked body was found at the bottom of a 60-metre cliff at North head on 10 December 1988.

After three inquests, it was ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson been the victim of an anti-gay attack. A $1million reward for information leading to an arrest in the case was offered in 2018.

White was arrested and charged with Johnson’s murder in 2020 and unexpectedly pled guilty at a pre-trial hearing in January.

An attempt by White’s legal team to remove his admission was rejected by the court.

For three decades between the 1970s and 2000, the parks and coastline surrounding Sydney were the scenes of a huge number of brutal deaths involving gay men, many of whom were found at the foot of cliffs.

Many of the men had their cause of death listed as the result of suicides or accidents, but rumours swirled for years that homophobic gangs roamed the city’s known gay meeting areas looking for victims to attack.

In 2018, police admitted that the killings of at least 27 gay men in Sydney between 1976 and 2000 were likely homophobic hate crimes, with as many as 25 more needing further investigation.