NSW Coroner delivers third finding in Scott Johnson case

The New South Wales Coroner has handed down its findings in relation to the death of Scott Johnson in December 1988, declaring that he was most likely murdered in a gay-hate related crime.

Johnson’s naked body was found at the bottom of a cliff in Manly, Sydney. Johnson had been out celebrating completing his PhD. The young mathematicians death was ruled a suicide but his family is not convinced, and have campaigned for decades to have his case reviewed.

The families story was featured on an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story in 2013, and the Coroner reversed a previous ruling that his death had been a suicide, delivering instead an open verdict.

His family has always maintained their belief that Scott Johnson was murdered, and today after a third inquest into his death the State Coroner said there was enough evidence to the draw that conclusion.

NSW Coroner Michael Barnes said it was very unlikely Mr Johnson accidentally tripped or fell. He also ruled it was unlikely the young man had taken his own life as he had no mental illness and was described as being in a positive frame of mind at the time.

During the inquest the court heard that the North Heads area was a ‘gay beat’ in the 70s and 80s. It also heard evidence that groups of men used to travel to the area with the goal of bashing gay men.

Coroner Barnes concluded that Johnson was most likely attacked by a group of people, and was either pushed from the cliff top or fell while trying to escape his attackers.

Speaking outside the court this morning, Johnson’s brother Steve – who has spent decades working with investigators to work out what happened to his sibling, said police should continue to investigate the incident.

“The inquest produced many leads towards possible perpetrators that should still be pursued.”

“I strongly believe Scott’s killers are out there today. We may have heard from friends of the killers through the inquest…they should be encouraged to come forward.” Steve Johnson said.

While Johnson’s case has received a great deal of media attention, there is concern that other deaths that occurred in the area may have also wrongly been classified as suicides.

ACON (AIDS Council of NSW) said they welcomed the Corner’s finding, albeit with a great sense of sadness.

“For close to three decades, the death of Scott Johnson has created great pain, anguish and anxiety for the Scott’s family. No family should be subjected to such uncertainty and scrutiny when their beliefs regarding the death of a loved one are challenged.” CEO Nicholas Parkhill said in a statement.

“We hope that today’s ruling brings into sharp focus a resolution as to what actually happened to Scott on the cliffs of Manly, recognising that it is just one more step in in a long path toward justice.

“Scott’s untimely death has fuelled unprecedented public speculation. It occurred during a time when homophobic violence and suspected gay hate murders were rife in Sydney, 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.

“The deaths and disappearances of gay men and transgender women and the epidemic of violence during these decades has left legacy. Bias-motivated violence and murder are crimes that hurt both physically and emotionally, and the impact is felt deeply, both individually and communally.” Parkhill said.

The President of the News Law Society said the coroner’s findings represented an acknowledgement of the failure of authorities to effectively investigate gay hate crimes in the past.

Pauline Wright said authorities had failed the families of those who had been killed.

“Many families who have suffered the trauma of losing a loved one in violent circumstances have been further scarred by the failure of authorities to provide adequate support and assistance,” Wright said.

Wright said police attitudes and procedures concerning crimes against the LGBTIQA community had improved in recent times, noting the introduction of specific policies and programs supporting members of the LGBTIQA community as well as Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers.

“However we call on Commissioner Mick Fuller to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and assure the public that they will never be repeated,” Wright said. “This could enhance trust and public confidence in the police particularly in the LGBTIQA community.”

OIP Staff

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