A court heard on Monday that a man told police he killed American mathematician Scott Johnson in 1988 by pushing the 27-year-old off a cliff in Sydney in what prosecutors called a gay hate crime.
Scott White, 51, appeared in the New South Wales High Court for sentencing hearing after pleading in January to commit the murder of the Los Angeles-born Canberra resident, whose death at the North Head cliff base was initially denied by police. as suicide.
Judge Helen Wilson will rule on White on Tuesday. He faces a possible life sentence.
“I put pressure on a man. He went overboard,” White said in a taped police interview in 2020 that took place in court.
White said in the interview that he lied when he earlier told police that he had tried to catch Johnson and prevent his fatal fall.
An investigator ruled in 2017 that Johnson had “fallen off a cliff as a result of actual violence or threats by unknown persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be gay”.
The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various locations in Sydney looking for gay men to attack, resulting in the death of some of the victims. Some people were also robbed.
A coroner had ruled in 1989 that the openly gay man had committed suicide, while a second coroner in 2012 was unable to explain how he died.
His Boston-based brother Steve Johnson has continued to press for further investigations and has offered a A$1 million ($704,000) reward for information. White was charged in 2020 and police say the bounty is likely to be taken.
White’s ex-wife, Helen White, told the court that her then-husband “bragged” to their children of hitting gay men on top of a cliff known as gay encounters.
Helen White said she read a newspaper report in 2008 about Johnson’s death and asked her husband if he was responsible.
Scott White replied, “It’s not my fault.” “The (expletive) idiot ran off the cliff.”
“I said, ‘That’s if you chase him,'” Helen White told the court. She said her husband did not respond.
Under questioning, Helen White denied that she was aware of the A$1 million bounty for information on Johnson’s killing when she reported her ex-husband to police in 2019. She said she only learned of the reward when the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, had it. Double the amount in 2020.
“With a fierce push, Mr. White took Scott and disappeared,” Steve Johnson said in his victim impact statement.
The brother added: “This guy (Scott Johnson) who once told me he couldn’t hurt someone even in self-defense died in horror.”
Steve Johnson said he appreciated White’s guilty plea.
‘If he had turned himself in after his violent actions, I would have been more sympathetic.’ said the brother, his voice choked with emotion. If he had grabbed Scott’s hand and pulled him to safety, I would owe him an everlasting gratitude.
Scott Johnson’s sisters Terry and Rebecca Johnson, partner Michael Nunn and Steve Johnson’s wife Rosemary Johnson also provided victim impact data.
Rosemary Johnson described the initial police failure to investigate Scott Johnson’s death as “indefensible and inhuman”.
Rebecca Johnson, the younger sister, said the police report of the suicide was “meaningless”.
“How can a society fail so spectacularly that they create boys who are capable of causing such horror?” I asked, referring to media reports of gays being beaten up in Sydney described as a sport.
Attorney General Brett Hatfield said the exact details of the killing were unknown and White’s accounts varied.
Hatfield said White met Johnson at a nearby bar in suburban Manly and that Johnson stripped naked on a cliff top before his death. He said that the severity of the murder increased significantly because it was motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.
White’s attorney, Belinda Rigg, said her client was gay and was worried that his homophobic brother would find out.
In January, White repeatedly pleaded guilty in court during a pretrial hearing that he pleaded guilty, having previously denied the crime.
His lawyers will appeal this petition in the Criminal Court of Appeal and hope that he will be acquitted at trial.
Scott Johnson was a PhD student at the Australian National University and lived in Canberra. He was staying at Noon’s parents’ home in Sydney when he died.