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Conviction Overturned For Australian Man Who Once Confessed To Gay American Man’s 1988 Murder
The death of mathematician Scott Johnson, whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff, was long believed to a suicide. A new look at the case in 2017 led to the arrest of Scott White, a cognitively impaired man who abruptly confessed to the murder in court.
A man who once confessed to a murder long-investigated as a suicide has had his conviction overturned.
Scott Phillip White, 51, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in an Australian prison for the December 1988 murder of American student Scott Johnson, who’d been studying abroad at the Australian National University in the country’s capital, Canberra.
Johnson, who was gay, was found dead at the bottom of a seaside cliff at North Head in Manly — nearly 200 miles southwest of Canberra, just outside Sydney.
The area from which Johnson fell to his death was known to be frequented by homosexual men.
For years, the mathematician’s death was believed to be a suicide until 2012, when a second inquest found Johnson’s manner of death was inconclusive.
According to ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), loved ones stood firm in their beliefs that Johnson was the victim of a hate crime. In 2017, investigators agreed Johnson was the victim of a homicide.
White was arrested in 2020 after being named by an informant, and initially pleaded not guilty to Johnson’s death while facing life in prison. However, in a surprise admission during a January 2020 pretrial hearing, he abruptly told the court, “I’m guilty, guilty.”
The defense scrambled to have the confession stricken from the record to no avail, and White was convicted.
White allegedly claimed, “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,” he said of his former wife, according to the Guardian.
White, who reportedly lives with an intellectual disability, soon claimed he was “confused” when he admitted guilt, according to the Associated Press. Just 20 minutes after making the damning statements, White changed his mind, stating he felt pressured by the stress of seeing the victim’s brother, Steve Johnson, in the courtroom.
On Friday, three judges from the New South Wales State Court Of Criminal Appeal in Sydney heard arguments that the previous judge wrongfully denied White’s application to withdraw his guilty plea following a two-day hearing.
Chief Justice Andrew Bell and Justices Richard Button and Natalie Adams ruled in Johnson’s favor, ABC reported.
The victim’s brother — once cited as White’s reason for pleading guilty — traveled from Boston to Australia to attend last week’s hearing.
“Whatever lies ahead, we’re ready for it,” Steve Johnson said in an email to the Associated Press. “A lot of people are working very hard on this case — no one wanted a rush to judgment or a reckless conviction of anyone for this crime.”
Family friend Peter Rolfe spoke with reporters outside the courthouse following Friday's decision.
“This matter has been going on for so long,” Rolfe stated. “And it goes on and on and on.”
Rolfe told ABC he’d hoped Steve Johnson would have been spared a trial.
Steve Johnson remains one of his brother’s loudest voices, having offered a total of $2 million Australian dollars (about $1.3 USD) toward finding his brother’s killer.
“He courageously lived his life as he wanted to,” Steve Johnson previously stated. “I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today and hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice.”
Earlier this month, hearings began after the Special Commission of Inquiry probed four decades of unresolved hate crimes within the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) community, which have largely been ignored in Australia, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
The new inquiry will reexamine nearly 90 homicides resulting from “gay hate” and “anti-gay bias” between 1976 and 2000, according to the Associated Press. ACON, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, reported that 30 of these deaths remain unsolved.
Lawyer Peter Gray, one of those leading the government’s inquest, said the probe was “the first of its kind anywhere in the world.”
Gray said Scott Johnson’s murder — one of the more infamous hate crimes in Australia — was not part of the inquest because of the ongoing case concerning Scott White’s appeals, according to the Associated Press.
“Certainly, my family and I are all incredibly disappointed — crestfallen — that we haven’t found justice for my brother yet after 34 years,” Steven Johnson told The Guardian. “We were hoping we’d all be able to rest after today. But we respect the process. I know even my brother, Scott, would appreciate the care that is being taken.”
The recent decision means Scott White will likely go before the New South Wales Supreme Court to face a trial once more, according to ABC.
He is due back in court on Dec. 1.