A man told police he killed American mathematician Scott Johnson in 1988 by pushing the 27-year-old off a Sydney cliff in what prosecutors describe as a gay hate crime, a court heard on Monday. Scott White, 51, appeared in the New South Wales state Supreme Court for a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty in January to the murder of the Los Angeles-born Canberra resident, whose death at the base of a North Head cliff was initially dismissed by police as suicide. White will be sentenced by Justice Helen Wilson on Tuesday, per the AP. He faces a potential sentence of life in prison. "I pushed a bloke. He went over the edge," White said in a recorded police interview in 2020 that was played in court.
White said in the interview he lied when he'd earlier told police that he had tried to grab Johnson and prevent his fatal fall. A coroner 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." Prosecutor Brett Hatfield said the precise details of the murder weren't known and that White's accounts had varied. White had met Johnson in a nearby bar in suburban Manly and Johnson had stripped naked on the top of the cliff before he died, Hatfield said. He added that the gravity of the murder was elevated because it was motivated by the victim's sexuality.
The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault. A coroner ruled in 1989 that the openly gay Johnson had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 couldn't explain how he died. Johnson's Boston-based brother, Steve Johnson, maintained pressure for further investigation and offered his own reward of $704,000 for information. White was charged in 2020. In January, he yelled repeatedly in court during a pretrial hearing that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime. Scott Johnson was a doctoral student at Australian National University and lived in Canberra. More here, including his family's victim impact statements.
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