Scott Philip White, 51, who now identifies as gay, will serve a minimum of eight years and three months behind bars for the killing of Johnson, whose naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manly in northern Sydney in December 1988. Johnson was 27 at the time of his murder. White had been facing life behind bars, but Justice Helen Wilson handed down a reduced sentence in accordance with current sentencing guidelines and the applicable law in effect at the time of the murder, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Despite the homophobic nature of the crime, White was not convicted of a hate crime.
"Sentences for murder in the late '80s and early '90s were on average lower than at present," Wilson said of the sentence in New South Wales Supreme Court.
Wilson noted White's hardscrabble upbringing as a closeted gay man raised in a homophobic home and eventually living on the streets for a period. She also said she was sentencing the man before her, "a seriously impaired man in his 50s who has been law-abiding for 15 years," rather than the "violent and aggressive young man" who caused Johnson to plunge off the cliff to his death.
"Mr. Johnson must have been terrified, aware he would strike the rocks below and conscious of his fate," Wilson said.
While many were hoping for a hate-crime conviction as well, Wilson said there simply was not enough evidence available from the decades-old crime.
"That it was a gay hate crime is not a conclusion the court can reach to a criminal standard," Wilson explained, according to the Herald.
Johnson 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.
While White could have faced the remainder of his life in jail, Steve Johnson said he was satisfied with the outcome, the Herald reports.
"There's no way to second-guess the sentence that she delivered," Steve Johnson said outside the court. "Twelve years in prison -- it could have been life in prison and it wasn't bringing Scott back. What we got was fairness, and dignity for our brother."