CANBERRA – An Australian pleaded guilty on Thursday to manslaughter in the death 35 years ago of an American who fell from a Sydney clifftop that was known as a gay meeting place, with the victim’s family welcoming the turning point in their long campaign for justice.
Scott White’s admission in the New South Wales state Supreme Court came three months after he had his conviction on charges of murdering Scott Johnson overturned by an appeals court.
The family of Los Angeles-born Johnson had fought for years to overturn an initial finding that the 27-year-old mathematician had taken his own life in 1988.
Johnson’s Boston-based 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 the United States.
Breakthrough evidence came last October when police intercepted a prison phone call between White and a niece in which he confessed to striking his victim at the clifftop, Johnson said.
“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, Johnson told The Associated Press.
“The police work that continued during the appeal and after the appeal to get that one last piece of evidence that brought him to the table ... so that we could negotiate this, I’m incredibly thankful,” he said.
Johnson said he has read the facts of the crime agreed between prosecutors and defense lawyers as part of a plea deal that will be presented to a judge when White returns to court on June 6 to be sentenced.
“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.
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.”
The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some people were also robbed.
It was the third inquest into the tragedy following 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 described the police investigation since the third inquest as “spectacular.” But he 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.
A New South Wales government inquiry began hearing evidence in November of unsolved deaths resulting from gay hate crimes over four decades in Australia’s most populous state, where police were notoriously indifferent to such violence.
Violence against gay men in Sydney was particularly prevalent from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s due to increased hostility and fear stemming from the AIDS epidemic, an HIV support group, ACON, told the inquiry.
Steve Johnson, a wealthy entrepreneur, offered a 1 million Australian dollar ($704,000) reward in 2020 for information about his brother's death, matching a reward already offered by police.
White, 52, was arrested in Sydney that year and pleaded not guilty to the murder of Johnson, who was an Australian National University Ph.D. student living in the capital, Canberra, when he died.
Police have suggested the reward led to the arrest, saying they expected it would be collected after White’s conviction.
White took his lawyers by surprise in January last year by pleading guilty to murder during a pretrial hearing.
About 20 minutes later, White signed a statement saying that he had been “confused” when he pleaded guilty, had not caused Johnson’s death and wanted to plead 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.
White on Thursday pleaded not guilty to murder and guilty to manslaughter. Prosecutors had earlier agreed with White’s lawyers to accept the plea.
Police Deputy Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans told reporters outside the court that the 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.
The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes in New South Wales will report on June 30.