Murder of Scott Johnson

Scott Russell Johnson (27 November 1961 – 8 December 1988) was an American university student who was killed in Australia in 1988. Initially treated by police as a suicide, a coroner's inquest in 2017 resulted in finding "[he] died as a result of a gay-hate attack". In May 2020, Scott White, an Australian man, was arrested and charged and in January 2022, convicted in the murder of Johnson, citing homophobia as his motivation.[1][2]

Murder of Scott Johnson
Date8–10 December 1988
VictimScott Russell Johnson
PerpetratorScott White
MotiveHomophobia (likely)
VerdictPleaded guilty to murder

Sentenced to 12 years and 7 months, with the possibility of parole after 8 years and 3 months (2022, later withdrew plea, conviction overturned)

Pleaded guilty to manslaughter

Sentenced to 9 years, with the possibility of parole after 6 years (2023)
ConvictionsMurder (later overturned) Manslaughter


Scott Russell Johnson
Born27 November 1961
Los Angeles County, California
Died8–10 December 1988 (age 27)
North Head, Sydney
Cause of deathMurder
Body discovered10 December 1988

Scott Russell Johnson was born on 27 November 1961, in Los Angeles County, California, United States. In 1983, he moved to England to study mathematics at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, he met Michael Noone, a musicologist from Australia who became his partner.[3] In 1986, Johnson left his doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley and moved to Canberra on a student visa to complete his PhD at the Australian National University and to be with Noone.[3]



Johnson's naked body was found on rocks at the foot of cliffs at Blue Fish Point in North Head near Manly in Sydney, on 10 December 1988.[1][2] His clothes and belongings were found on top of the cliff.[3] Police initially claimed that his death was a case of suicide, which his brother, Steve Johnson, disputed.[1][4]



Steve Johnson campaigned for decades for his brother's death to be re-investigated.[1] Family campaigning had led to coroners investigations in 2012 and 2015 that recommended that police reopen the case.[1] No action was taken until 2017 when a coroner found that Johnson had died as a result of a hate crime.[1] Police offered an A$1 million reward in 2018 for information.[1][4][2] His family later raised the reward to A$2 million in March 2020.[1]

The conclusion that Johnson's death was the result of a hate crime drew attention to other homophobic killings around Sydney beaches in the 1980s.[1] It is now estimated that as many as 80 gay men were murdered in Sydney in the late 1980s, many pushed off cliffs.[1] The New South Wales Police Force has since apologised for not investigating the murder of Johnson properly and failing to protect the gay community.[1]


Scott White
Bornc.1970 (age 52–53)
Conviction(s)Pleaded guilty to murder (2022, later withdrew plea, conviction overturned) Pleaded guilty to manslaughter (2023)
Criminal penalty12 years and 7 months, non-parole period of 8 years and 3 months (2022) Commuted in 2023 to 9 years, non-parole period of 6 years, after conviction reduced to manslaughter
Capture status
Incarcerated, eligible for parole in 2026
Time at large
31 years, 6 months, and 4 days
VictimsScott Russell Johnson
Location(s)North Head, New South Wales, Australia (murder) Lane Cove, New South Wales, Australia (arrest)
Date apprehended
12 May 2020

On 12 May 2020 a 49-year-old man, Scott White, was arrested in Lane Cove, Sydney, and charged with Johnson's murder.[1] After being contacted about the arrest, Steve Johnson said: "This is a very emotional day, he was my best friend and he really needed me to do this."[1] Steve Johnson also hopes that the arrest will open the doors for others to receive justice.[1] He said: "I hope the family and friends of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what's happened today."[1]

On 13 January 2022 Scott White was found guilty of murdering Scott Johnson in 1988 after changing his plea to guilty. He originally pleaded not-guilty but changed it on 10 January 2022 to guilty. His lawyer tried to have it withdrawn the next day under the guise of White being unfit to make the admission but the Supreme Court rejected the motion. On 3 May White was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months, with a non-parole period of 8 years and 3 months, based on laws at the time of the murder and White's own personal circumstances.[5] The judge said, "That it was a gay hate crime is not a conclusion that the Court can reach to the criminal standard however".[6] White later withdrew his guilty plea, and his murder conviction was overturned on appeal. On 23 February 2023 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.[7] On 8 June 2023 he was re-sentenced to 9 years in prison, with eligibility for parole after 6 years. He will be eligible for parole in 2026.[8]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Scott Johnson death: Australian man arrested in gay hate killing cold case". BBC News. 12 May 2020. Retrieved 12 May 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "Man arrested over 1988 death of Scott Johnson after fall from Sydney clifftop". The Guardian. 12 May 2020. Archived from the original on 12 May 2020. Retrieved 14 July 2023.
  3. ^ a b c Crimaldi, Laura (11 March 2019). "Cambridge man seeks justice for brother killed 30 years ago in Australia". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 19 May 2020. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  4. ^ a b Baggs, Michael (17 December 2018). "Scott Johnson death: It's 'inconceivable' my brother killed himself". BBC News. Archived from the original on 18 December 2018. Retrieved 14 August 2023.
  5. ^ Cockburn, Paige (3 May 2022). "Scott Johnson's killer jailed for 12 years over infamous 1988 murder". ABC News. Archived from the original on 3 May 2022.
  6. ^ "R v White". NSW Caselaw. 3 May 2022. Archived from the original on 3 May 2022. Retrieved 14 August 2023.
  7. ^ "Scott White pleads guilty to 1988 manslaughter of Scott Johnson". ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
  8. ^ "Scott Johnson's Manly cliff killer jailed for nine years after 'decades of pain and grief'". 9News.