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On December 10, 1988, White met Johnson at a hotel and the pair went for a walk around North Head which was known at the time to be a gay beat.
White, then 18 years old, threw a punch at Johnson in the heat of an argument causing the 27-year-old to stagger backwards and fall to his death over the cliff.
The American was close to receiving his doctorate from the Australian National University, which he has since been awarded posthumously.
“Dr Johnson was an American citizen … he had everything to live for,” Justice Beech-Jones said.
“The offender left (him) to die.”
The 52-year-old had long denied murdering Johnson, only to say “guilty, I am guilty” in a surprise plea during a pre-trial hearing in Sydney in January 2022.
He later told his confused lawyers at the time “I didn’t do it but I’m saying I’m doing it … it’s the only way, she’s going to come after me” – suggesting his former wife would attack him.
White, who now has early onset dementia due to excessive alcohol abuse, was described as a Manly ‘street kid’ at the time of the killing.
“The offender was clearly a damaged albeit physically powerful young man,” Justice Beech-Jones said.
“However he was not broken as he is now.”
Originally thought of as a suicide, NSW Police eventually opened an investigation into what they thought was a gay hate crime in 2012.
In her now overturned judgment on the murder conviction, Justice Helen Wilson found there was not enough evidence to show the attack was motivated by Johnson’s sexuality.
Justice Beech-Jones said he could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the crime was a “gay hate crime”.
“Answers to numerous other questions about how he died, why he died and what happened … some of those answers will never be provided,” Justice Beech-Jones said.
Counselling and referral services for LGBTIQ+ individuals are available through QLife on 1800 184 527 or online.