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Gay man's death finally ruled a hate crime murder 29 years after he died

Scott Johnson was a 27-year-old PhD student who died at a time when 'gay bashings' were commonplace in Sydney

Gay man's death finally ruled a hate crime murder 29 years after he died
Photo: GSN Archives
Scott Johnson was 27 years old when he was murdered. | Photo: GSN Archives

The coroner in the Australian state of New South Wales has ruled that Scott Johnson died in 1988 as the result of a homophobic hate crime.

Johnson was a 27-year-old student from the United States and had moved to Sydney to finish his PhD and to be with his partner, Michael Noone.

Johnson’s naked body was found floating in the water at North Head, Sydney on 10 December, 1988. His clothes were found neatly placed at the top of the cliff above.

At the time police ruled his murder a suicide.

But since then and three coronial inquests later, his family have argued there is no way Johnson took his own life or accidentally tripped. His brother Steve Johnson has spent AU$1 million (US$756,577).

Johnson died around the time there was an epidemic of gay bashings around Sydney’s coastal gay beats. One of the reasons police gave at the time for ruling his death a suicide was that North Head was not known as a gay beat.

Coroner’s findings

In the the third inquest into Johnson’s death, NSW Coroner Michael Barnes ruled it was ‘highly unlikely’ he died by suicide.

The coroner said he had been persuaded Johnson was murdered in a hate crime.

‘Scott Johnson died as a result of a gay hate attack. There is however insufficient evidence to identify the perpetrators,’ Barnes said in his ruling.

Barnes also condemned police for objectively and competently carrying out their investigations in 1988.

‘Regrettably those responsible for the investigation quickly jumped to conclusions without thoroughly and impartially examining all of the facts,’ he said.

Pain of history

Johnson’s death has attracted a lot of media attention and happened at a time ‘when homophobic violence and suspected gay hate murders were rife in Sydney’.

NSW’s leading LGBTI and HIV health organization said the homophobic violence was ‘compounded by a sense of police lethargy, lack of care and inaction’.

‘We believe these deaths were not always sufficiently investigated with the requisite due diligence, and have subsequently left many questions in their wake,’ said ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill.

‘The deaths and disappearances of gay men and transgender women and the epidemic of violence during these decades has left legacy.’

Parkhill said while NSW Police processes and cultures are shifting, ‘a history remains that needs to be investigated and accounted for, not just in relation to Scott’s case but for many other victims of similar hideous crimes that remain unsolved, and have not been treated with due respect or process’.

‘Scott’s death and today’s ruling should be a siren for all, including the NSW Government and NSW Police, that full weight of justice has not been delivered to the perpetrators of this and other horrendous crimes,’ Parkhill said.


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