An Australian court sentencing the man convicted of the 1988 murder of American Scott Johnson heard testimony about how he admitted his involvement in the killing to his ex-wife and also bragged about his involvement in gay-bashing as a young man to his children.
The man's lawyer also revealed he now identifies as gay, according to the Australian news outlet ABC.
Scott Philip White, 51, was convicted in January for the crime after surprising the court and his lawyers by pleading guilty to killing the math postgraduate student whose naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manly in northern Sydney. Johnson was 27 at the time of his murder.
The court heard Monday from White’s ex-wife, Helen White, who said she twice asked him about the murder, first in 1988 and then again in 2008 after an article mentioned the crime.
“I remember asking him if this was one of the gay men that he’d bashed, and he said, ‘Oh, that girly-looking poofter,’” Helen White said in testimony to the court, ABC News reports. She that White “quite often bragged about bashing poofters.”
She confronted him again about the murder in 2008 after seeing an article on Johnson.
“I saw the article and the picture and I just asked him, ‘Did you do this?’”
She told the court he replied, “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.”
She also said White claimed didn’t push or throw Johnson off the cliff but instead said it wasn’t his fault “the dumb c*nt ran off the cliff,” to which she testified that she replied, “Well, it is if you chased him.”
White’s lawyer, Belinda Rigg, told the court her client admitted to police the pair had gone to the cliffs at Johnson’s suggestion, and that he was fearful of the backlash against gays at the time.
Crown prosecutor Brett Hatfield told the court White said, “We used to go poofter bashing,” before correcting himself and claiming it was his brother who went gay-bashing, not him.
“It’s an admission to being involved in it himself before quickly stepping back from it in the subsequent statement,” Hatfield told the court.
White faces a potential sentence of life in prison, according to the Associated Press.
“I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge,” White said in a recorded interview with police in 2020 that the court was shown.
The cliffs surrounding the greater Sydney area were popular both with members of the gay community looking to hook up during the 1970s and ’80s and also with homophobic groups of men and youth who would assault and often murder gay men, throwing them or forcing them to leap from the cliffs onto the rocks below. As many as 80 gay men were killed in the area during the period, and police often refused to investigate, ruling the murders as death by suicide instead.
Johnson, 27, moved to Australia from the U.S. to be with his partner, Australian national Michael Noone, and to study for his Ph.D. His naked body was discovered by a fisherman at the base of cliffs near Manly in December 1988. His clothes were found neatly folded at the top of the cliff.
There had been three inquests into the Johnson murder. The first declared the case death by suicide. A second inquest was launched in 2012, which declared the case was still open. The third and final inquest found Johnson was the victim of murder and a hate crime. New detectives were assigned to the cold case, and White was soon identified as a suspect.
Johnson’s older brother, Steve Johnson, was instrumental in bringing White to justice. He had hired his own investigator and doubled the reward offered in the case. He told the court his brother was “brilliant” and would have excelled in what he called the “golden era for nerds” that followed his murder.
“One of the most touching moments of today was the judge called him Doctor Johnson,” Johnson told ABC News outside the court Monday. “He was granted his Ph.D. posthumously by Australia National University, so no one ever called him that in his life. And he was a brilliant gentle wonderful man.”