Metro Weekly

Australian Accused of Killing Gay American Has Conviction Overturned

Appeals court finds that Scott White should have been able to reverse a guilty plea he allegedly made under duress.

Australia’s North Head cliff – Photo: David Stanley, via Flickr.

A man convicted of killing gay 27-year-old U.S. mathematician Scott Johnson in 1988 had his conviction overturned on appeal last month. 

For years, Johnson’s death had been shrouded in mystery. The young mathematician’s body was found at the bottom of a cliff overlooking a beach in a suburb of Sydney in December 1988, with his clothes folded neatly nearby. 

Authorities initially ruled Johnson’s death a suicide. In 2012, following petitions from Johnson’s family, a second inquest recommended that police reinvestigate his death. In 2017, after a third inquest, the coroner said that Johnson likely died as a result of a homophobic attack.

Johnson’s family has said that he did not die by suicide. In 2018, Johnson’s brother told the BBC that no investigation had taken place shortly after Johnson died. 

“It was inconceivable to me that Scott went somewhere and jumped off a cliff,” his brother Steve told BBC News.

In subsequent decades, it’s been revealed that gangs of youths used to patrol suspected cruising spots — including near the cliffs — in News South Wales looking for potential victims. Some of those men died after being pushed or falling to their deaths while being pursued by those gangs. Many of the attacks went unsolved, in part due to anti-LGBTQ bias on the part of police officers investigating the deaths.

In 2015, a police task force called the Strike Force Parrabell began investigating 88 deaths that may have been caused by anti-gay hate, a group of cases sometimes called the “Gay Gang Murders.” In 2018, the task force released its report announcing 63 cases had been solved.

A special inquiry looking into unsolved deaths between 1970 and 2010 that may have been anti-LGBTQ hate crimes recently began hearing evidence on those crimes in November.

In 2020, thanks to increased pressure from Johnson’s family and the Australian public, authorities arrested New South Wales resident Scott White in connection with Johnson’s death. White, who was a teenager at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty during a pre-trial hearing. He later reversed course, and, within an hour, signed a statement saying he did not kill Johnson.

According to The Associated Press, White, who has an intellectual disability, told his lawyers that he made the guilty plea due to stress. He said he feared his ex-wife — who ultimately testified against him and recounted confronting her husband at least twice his suspected role in Johnson’s death — would “come after” him, according to the BBC.

The New South Wales Supreme Court rejected an attempt to withdraw the guilty plea and sentenced White to 12 years in prison in May. However, on Nov. 18, the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal said he should have been able to reverse his guilty plea, noting that there were questions about White’s mental status and his culpability in the crime. As such, a trial may have resulted in White being acquitted or convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter.

With the sentence reversed, White now can plead “not guilty” to the crime and demand a full trial. 

Steve Johnson, the older brother of Scott Johnson, who at one point had offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the prosecution of his brother’s killer, said the overturn of White’s sentence was “devastating,” but could ultimately shine more light on the crime.

“The fact that he pleaded guilty — Scott White pleaded guilty — didn’t tell us a lot,” Steve Johnson told Boston ABC affiliate WCVB. “It didn’t tell us about why. It didn’t tell us what he did. It didn’t tell us why my brother was there. And if there’s a trial, oddly enough, I’ll appreciate the chance to hear those things: to hear what motivated him, to hear why my brother was there, to hear what happened.”

He also said he respects the legal process, even if the lack of resolution has been frustrating for his family.

“It’s the right process. This is what should happen, and we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “However long this takes, however more times I need to go to Australia as this plays out, I will.”

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