CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – An Australian pleaded guilty Thursday to manslaughter in the death 35 years ago of a Cal alumnus who fell off a cliff in Sydney known as a gay hangout.
Scott White’s admission to the Supreme Court of New South Wales comes three months after an appeals court overturned his conviction on charges of murdering Scott Johnson.
Johnson’s family fought for years to overturn the initial finding that the 27-year-old mathematician had taken his own life in 1988.
Johnson was born in Los Angeles and in 1986 was in a doctoral program in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, when he moved to Canberra to complete his studies at the Australian National University. In December 1988, his body was found on a rocky beach below cliffs overlooking Sydney Harbour.
White, now 52, was arrested in 2020 after Scott Johnson’s brother Steve Johnson, a wealthy Boston businessman, offered a $1 million Australian Dollar ($704,000) reward for information about the death.
White took his lawyers by surprise last January when he pleaded guilty to murder during a pretrial hearing. About 20 minutes later, he said he was “confused” 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.
Last October, while inmate White was awaiting the results of his appeal, police reportedly intercepted a phone call in which he confessed to assaulting Johnson on top of a cliff.
“In that phone call to his niece, he corroborated the evidence that they (police) had previously gathered, and that brought his defense team to the table” to negotiate a guilty plea on the manslaughter charge, Steve Johnson told The Associated. Press.
“Reading the black and white of his confession, in which he claims 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 very angry,” Johnson said.
White was 18 and homeless when he met Scott Johnson in a pub in suburban Manly on 10 December 1988, and walked with him to the top of a nearby cliff in North Head.
Johnson’s fatal fall from the cliff was initially ruled a suicide in a 1989 coroner’s report. Two other inquests followed: one in 2012 said it could not determine the circumstances of death, and in 2017 a coroner ruled that Johnson “fell off the cliff”. cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence” by unknown assailants who “attacked him because they realized he was homosexual”.
The coroner also found that gangs of men roamed various locations around Sydney looking for gay men to assault, resulting in the deaths of some victims. Some people were also robbed.
Steve Johnson described the police investigation since the third inquiry as “spectacular”. But he said his brother’s homicide could have been solved easily by the police when he died.
“In fact, many of us believe that it was the police’s indifference to these gay killings and beatings in the 1980s that helped to cause them. The perpetrators always knew they wouldn’t get into trouble,” Johnson said.
In sentencing White on the now overturned murder conviction, the judge said there was no reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, which would have led to a longer prison sentence.
White is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6 on the manslaughter conviction.
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