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Australian Man Sentenced in 1988 Murder of Gay American Student

Steve Johnson, right, and his wife Rosemarie arrive at the Supreme Court in Sydney, May 2, 2022, for a sentencing hearing in the murder of Scott Johnson, Steve's brother.

An Australian man who admitted to killing a gay American student in 1988 has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Scott White pleaded guilty in January to the murder of 27-year-old Scott Johnson, whose body was discovered in December 1988 at the bottom of a cliff in Sydney’s North Head Beach district. The judge ordered the 51-year-old White to serve at least eight years and three months in prison before he can be eligible for parole.

Johnson, who was seeking his doctoral degree in mathematics, had moved to Australia in 1986 to live with his partner. He met White at a bar and went with him to the cliff top, which was a frequent meeting place for gay men.

An initial coroner’s inquest ruled that Johnson’s death was a suicide, but his family urged authorities to continue investigating. The case took a turn after it was revealed that several gay men were specifically targeted by roaming gangs because of their sexuality during that time period, including a few who were killed.

The family petitioned for a second inquest in 2012, which ruled Scott Johnson’s death as inconclusive. A third inquest in 2017 ruled that he fell from the clifftop “as a result of actual or threatened violence” because he was perceived to be gay. That inquest led to White’s arrest three years later.

But in her sentencing announcement, the judge said there was no evidence that Johnson’s death was the result of an anti-gay hate crime.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.