Metro Weekly

Australian Accused of Killing Gay American Tries to Withdraw Guilty Plea

Scott Phillip White claims he pled guilty due to fear of his ex-wife and "stress" from seeing the victim's brother in court.

Scott Johnson (left) in 1988 – Photo: ABC News; and Scott White (right, face blurred), who was convicted for Johnson’s murder, being arrested in 2020 – Photo: NSW Police.

An Australian man convicted of the murder of a gay American mathematician is now asking an appeals court to reverse his guilty plea and allow him to stand trial, claiming he only confessed out of fear that his ex-wife would come after him.

Scott Phillip White, the chief suspect in the murder of Scott Johnson, 27, whose naked body was found lying among the rocks below a cliff overlooking a beach in Manly, a northern suburb of Sydney, in December 1988. Johnson’s clothes had been found neatly folded at the top of the cliff.

Detectives launched three separate investigations into Johnson’s death, which was initially ruled a suicide by a local coroner in 1989. A 2012 inquest ruled that the cause of his death was inconclusive, while a 2017 inquest determined that Johnson had either been pushed over the cliff or had fallen while trying to escape assailants. 

In the decades since Johnson’s death, it has been revealed that during the 1980s and 1990s, gangs of  homophobic young men would often roam the cliffs in the Greater Sydney area — which were often used as “cruising” spots due to their remote location — searching for gay men to attack or rob.

Local police forces have since admitted that homophobic attitudes held by police officers may have influenced their decision not to aggressively pursue several dozen cases involving victims suspected of being gay who had either been pushed or had fallen from the cliffs.

White, who was arrested in 2020, initially asserted his innocence, but later confessed, during a videotaped interrogation while in police custody, to have pushed a man over the edge of a cliff. During that interrogation, White told police he had lied to arresting officers when he told arresting officers that he had tried to grab Johnson to prevent him from falling to his death.

In January 2022, White surprised everyone, including his own attorneys, when he confessed to the crime during a pre-trial arraignment.  

According to the Australian Associated Press, after confessing, White reportedly told his lawyers: “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,” referring to his ex-wife, Helen White. He has also since told his lawyers he now identifies as gay.

In May, during a subsequent court appearance, White’s lawyers asked the presiding judge, Justice Helen Wilson to allow their client to withdraw his guilty plea and stand trial. But Wilson refused to allow the plea to be withdrawn, noting that White had alternately confessed to and denied committing the murder, depending on to whom he was speaking. She sentenced him to 12 years in prison, commenting that White’s “violent act” — regardless of whether he physically pushed him or chased him to the edge of the cliff — and his “reckless indifference” to Johnson’s life caused Johnson to fall to his death, according to Australia’s ABC News.

At that same May hearing, just prior to Wilson sentencing Scott White, Helen White testified in court that she had asked her ex-husband two separate times about Johnson’s murder, in 1988 and 2008. The first time, she claimed she had asked about Johnson’s murder when her husband bragged about attacking gay men, to which he responded, ‘Oh, that girly-looking poofter.'”

The second time, she asked him directly whether he had murdered Johnson, to which he allegedly responded: “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.” He claimed not to have pushed or thrown Johnson from the cliff, saying it wasn’t his fault “the dumb c*nt ran off the cliff,” to which she allegedly responded: “Well, it is if you chased him.”

White’s lawyers have since appealed his conviction, claiming that their client’s guilty plea was made under duress, in part due to backlash from his ex-wife, and, in part, due to “stress” from seeing Johnson’s brother, Steve — who had refused to believe the coroner’s initial determination of death and spent the better part of more than three decades calling for police to reinvestigate the case — in court. 

“They are bad reasons, they’re really bad reasons for pleading guilty, and any lawyer acting responsibly would try to do as these lawyers have,” by asking to have the plea withdraw, barrister Tim Game argued before the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal last week. “He had no advice at the point at which he pleaded guilty.”

Game argued before the appeals court that it was in the interest of justice for the court to allow White — who is allegedly “cognitively impaired,” to withdraw his plea and defend himself from the charges against him at trial. While acknowledging the situation was “uniquely unusual,” he argued that no lawyer would ever encourage their client to plead guilty without first establishing the facts of the case, which his lawyers were never given the chance to do.

Sally Dowling, the New South Wales director of public prosecutions, argued before the appeals court that White allegedly told his lawyer that the decision to plead guilty was not made hastily. She claimed White understood the charges against him, had been advised about entering a plea, and had been “cogent and coherent” when justifying the guilty plea to his legal team.

“He has the presence of mind to assert for himself that it’s not a split-second decision,” Dowling said.

While it is unclear how the Court of Criminal Appeal will rule in the coming weeks and months, Steve Johnson says he has “accepted” the fact that if the court does overturn the sentence, there will be a trial, but also understands that the justice system is trying to ensure that White receives fair treatment and is allowed to defend himself if, as he claims, he confessed under duress.

‘”There was a lot of detail in the accused’s circumstances and the information that he had to process in order to make his plea and so I had to relive that again, it was pretty grueling,” he told ABC News. “I think there’s no way around the fact that I’m disappointed that my brother’s case is still not settled, but I can see the importance of what’s taking place in the court this week.”

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