Australian man admits to hate crime murder of gay American student whose death was ruled suicide over 30 years ago

Scott Johnson. IMAGE: FACEBOOK. 'Justice For Scott' page

An Australian man has pleaded guilty to murdering an American mathematician who plunged from a Sydney cliff in 1988 in an anti-gay hate crime that was dismissed by police as suicide.


One of Australia’s longest standing murder mysteries has finally been solved. 


Over 30 years ago, on December 8, 1988, Scott Johnson’s body was found naked at the base of North Head cliff in New South Wales as a result of a gay hate crime that, at the time, was dismissed by police as suicide.


Police had initially concluded that Johnson, who was a student in Canberra, had taken his own life. This was despite the discovery that his wallet was missing from his clothes, which were neatly folded near the cliff top.


Scott Johnson. Image: NEW SOUTH WALES POLICE


In 1989, a coronial inquest — a court-like proceeding held after unusual deaths — ruled that Johnson, who was openly gay, had taken his own life. However a second coroner in 2012 could not explain how he died.


Johnson’s family sought and campaigned tirelessly for justice and a third inquest and, eventually, in 2017, it was ruled that Johnson died as a result of a hate crime, having “fell from the cliff top as a result of actual or threatened violence by unidentified persons who attacked him because they perceived him to be homosexual.”


State Coroner Michael Barnes reported in findings that, during that time, gangs of men roamed various Sydney locations in search of gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some of the victims were also robbed.


Steve Johnson, the brother of victim Scott Johnson, returns following a break during an inquest at the New South Wales State Coroner’s Court in Sydney on June 14, 2017. IMAGE: PAUL MILLER / AP

The police offered a $1 million reward to anyone who came forward with information that led to a prosecution, a figure which was matched by Johnson’s brother, Steve, bringing the total reward amount to $2 million.


In May 2020, 32-years after Johnson’s death, Scott White was arrested at his home in Sydney and charged with murdering the 27-year-old LA-born victim.


Scott White arrested at his home in Sydney on Tuesday, May 12, 2charged with the murder of Scott Johnson in 1988. (NSW Police Force/ Twitter)


“[Scott] courageously lived his life as he wanted to,” Steve Johnson told the Associated Press at the time of White’s arrest. “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.” 


Although White’s legal team had prepared to argue his innocence, at a pre-trial hearing in the New South Wales Supreme Court on Monday (10 January), White is reported to have yelled repeatedly that he was guilty, having previously denied the crime.


White, 50, shocked his legal team when he was arraigned at the hearing by sensationally declaring in open court he is “guilty, guilty, guilty” to the 1988 murder.


According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson asked White’s barrister, Belinda Rigg, whether he spoke in error, but she was unable to say for certain.


Rigg reportedly told the court that, while her client was not unfit to plead, he did suffer from stress and anxiety, also requiring support for an intellectual disability, and was distressed prior to his appearance in court on Monday.


Justice Wilson observed White was “very emphatic” and repeated the words “guilty” or “I’m guilty” at least three times “in a manner which was very determined and very firm, and using a loud and clear voice”.


When White was first arrested in May 2020, the court heard that he had made a confession to police which he later withdrew.


The court heard White had raised an intention to plead guilty on several occasions, but Ms Rigg said these were moments of high stress and, after calming down, he accepted legal advice that he had a strong case, and to proceed with the trial. 


After declaring his guilt on Monday, White  reportedly apologised to his lawyers, telling them he appreciated their work “but I can’t handle it”. A transcript of the conference with his lawyers was tendered to the court where  Justice Wilson said it didn’t “stick out” to her as a split decision.


On Thursday January 13, the judge refused to grant White leave to withdraw his plea and White was convicted of Johnson’s murder. She also lifted a non-publication order in place that had prevented media from reporting the proceedings.


It brings an end to the decades-long fight for justice by the victims brother, Steve Johnson, who said that proving the death was a homicide ‘wasn’t easy’ but his faith had now been ‘restored’, reports the Daily Mail


Adding that his brother was a ‘proud’ gay man and was his best friend. 


‘[My brother] was brilliant, but more modest than he was brilliant, so you would never hear him say that,’ Steve Johnson said.


White is due to appear in court for sentencing on 2 May, 2022, however his attorney suggested that they may still appeal the conviction.


Scott Johnson