Scott White pleads guilty in death of gay man Scott Johnson

An Australian pleaded guilty Thursday to killing an American mathematician who fell 35 years ago from a cliff that was known as a gay hangout spot.

Scott White’s plea in the New South Wales state Supreme Court came three months after he had his murder conviction in the 1988 death of Scott Johnson thrown out by an appeals court.

The family of Johnson — a Los Angeles native who was working on a doctorate in mathematics at Australian National University in Canberra — had campaigned for decades to overturn an initial finding that the 27-year-old had committed suicide.

Johnson’s older brother, Steve Johnson, told reporters that the proceedings Thursday “might be the most emotional moment yet.” He watched the Sydney court hearing online from his home in the US.

White, 52, pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter. When asked by the presiding judge if he understood that he was accepting responsibility for Johnson’s death, the defendant replied, “Yeah, I do.”

Australian man Scott White, 52, on Thursday pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1988 death of an openly gay American student.
ABC News

A breakthrough in the case was made in October when police intercepted a prison phone call between White and his niece, in which he confessed to striking Johnson at the Sydney clifftop, according to his brother.

“In that phone call to the niece, he corroborated evidence that they (police) had previously gathered, and that brought his defense team to the table” to negotiate a guilty plea, Steve Johnson said.

The brother said he was “incredibly thankful” to the police for their work that made the plea deal possible.

Johnson said he has read the facts of the crime agreed between prosecutors and defense lawyers as part of the plea agreement.

This undated handout photo received from the New South Wales Police on May 12, 2020 shows US citizen Scott Johnson at an unknown location.
Scott Johnson, 27, fell to his death from a Sydney clifftop that was known as a gay hangout spot.

“Reading the black and white of his confession, in which he states that he threw the first punch, which I imagine was the only punch and my brother must have been very close to the cliff … makes me pretty angry,” Johnson said.

White, who was married to a woman but was secretly gay, had met Johnson in a bar in suburban Manly, before the two headed to the clifftop. There, Johnson had stripped naked, but White told investigators he did not have sex with the American.

White said he and Johnson got into a fight, and he took a swing at the mathematician, who then stumbled and fell to his death.

A coroner ruled in 2017 that Scott Johnson “fell from the clifftop as a result of actual or threatened violence” by unknown assailants who “attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”

Scott White
White’s earlier murder conviction for Johnson’s death was overturned last year.

The coroner also found that homophobic gangs of men roamed Sydney in search of gay men to assault or rob, resulting in some 80 deaths.

It was the third investigation of the PhD student’s death following sustained pressure from the family. A coroner had initially ruled in 1989 that the openly gay man had taken his own life, while a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.

Steve Johnson said his brother’s homicide could have been solved easily by police when he died.

“In fact, many of us believe that it was the police indifference to these killings and bashings of gay men back in the ’80s that helped cause them. The perpetrators always knew they would not get into trouble,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a wealthy Boston-based businessman, offered a $704,000 reward in 2020 for information about his brother’s death, matching a reward already offered by police.

Steve Johnson, brother of U.S. murder victim Scott Johnson, hugs his wife Rosemarie as they arrive at the Supreme Court in Sydney on May 2, 2022.
Scott Johnson’s older brother, Steve Johnson (left), had been campaigning for years to get justice for the young mathematician.

White was arrested in Sydney that year and pleaded not guilty to the murder of Scott Johnson. Then in January 2021, White surprised his lawyers when he pleaded guilty to murder during a pretrial hearing.

About 20 minutes later, White signed a statement saying he had been “confused” when he pleaded guilty, denied causing Johnson’s death and wanted to switch his plea to not guilty.

But the judge recorded the guilty plea and White was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in prison.

In sentencing White, the judge said she did not find beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, which would have led to a longer prison term.

In November, three judges of the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that White should have been allowed to reverse his guilty plea, quashing his conviction and sentence.

Police search a headland in Sydney, Tuesday, May 12, 2020, after White's arrest.
A coroner initially ruled that Scott Johnson had taken his own life by jumping from the clifftop.

On Thursday, Police Deputy Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans told reporters outside the court that White’s new manslaughter conviction vindicated the Johnson family’s long fight for justice.

“Look, a very emotional day for everyone, especially the Johnson family, who’ve been through a very traumatic time over the past 34 years and today really vindicates that family, what they’ve done over many, many years,” Yeomans said.

White will be back in court for his sentencing on June 6.

With Post wires