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Australian man pleads guilty to anti-gay hate crime in murder of American who plunged from cliff in 1988

Hate crimes in U.S. rise to highest levels in decades
Hate crimes in U.S. rise to highest levels in decades 00:41

An Australian man has pleaded guilty to murdering an American mathematician who plunged from a Sydney cliff in 1988 in an anti-gay hate crime that was dismissed by police at the time as suicide.

Scott White was charged in 2020 with murdering 27-year-old Los Angeles-born Scott Johnson, whose naked body was found at the base of North Head cliff on December 8, 1988. White yelled repeatedly in court during a pre-trial hearing in Sydney on Monday that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime.

Scott Johnson New South Wales Police

A New South Wales state Supreme Court judge on Thursday accepted the guilty plea, dismissing the objections of White's lawyers. White is to be sentenced on May 2.

He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

Police had initially concluded that Johnson, who was a doctoral student at Australian National University and lived in Canberra, had taken his own life. This was despite the discovery that his wallet was missing from his clothes, which were neatly folded near the cliff top.

A coronial inquest — a court-like proceeding held after unusual deaths — ruled in 1989 that the openly gay man had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.

Johnson's family sought a third inquest, and State Coroner Michael Barnes ruled in 2017 that Johnson "fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual."

Barnes found that gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some people were also robbed.

New South Wales police said in 2020 that White's arrest provided hope that other cold case killings could yet be solved — in particular four deaths long believed to be gay hate crimes.  

"I'm very, very hopeful that results like this reverberate through the community and we can get more information — that's what we need, we need more information in order to pursue these cases," assistant police commissioner Tony Crandell said.

A new police investigation offered a reward of 1 million Australian dollars (US $731,000) for information in 2018 and Johnson's older brother, Boston IT entrepreneur Steve Johnson, matched that reward offer in 2020.

"I think he deserves what he has coming to him," Steve Johnson told reporters outside the court after White pleaded guilty.

"It's a very sad, tragic thing that he did," Johnson said.

Brother attends Australia inquest into death of Scott Johnson
Steve Johnson, the brother of American mathematician Scott Johnson, returns following a break during an inquest at the New South Wales State Coroner's Court in Sydney on June 14, 2017.  Paul Miller / AP

Steve Johnson campaigned for decades for the case to be re-investigated. He told the BBC in 2018 it was "inconceivable" that his brother had jumped off a cliff.

White was arrested at his Sydney home two months after the reward was doubled. Police said at the time that the reward helped in their breakthrough and an unnamed informant would be eligible for the reward once White was convicted.

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