Story at a glance

  • An Australian man Thursday was convicted of the 1988 murder of Scott Johnson, an American doctoral student studying in Australia whose death had originally been ruled a suicide.
  • Johnson, who was an openly gay man, was found dead at the bottom of North Head cliff in Sydney.
  • Johnson’s assailant, Scott White, faces a sentence of life imprisonment. His lawyer said White would be appealing against his conviction.

An Australian man has pleaded guilty to the 1988 murder of Scott Johnson, an American man whose death was originally ruled a suicide.

Scott White was charged in 2020 with murdering Johnson more than three decades earlier. The 27-year-old’s death at the time was dismissed by police as a suicide after his naked body was found at the base of North Head cliff in Sydney.

White, 50, this week at a pre-trial hearing in the New South Wales Supreme Court stunned his legal team when he said he was “guilty, guilty, guilty,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson said White was “very emphatic” and repeated the words “guilty” or “I’m guilty” no less than three times “in a manner which was very determined and very firm, and using a loud and clear voice,” according to the Herald.


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On Thursday, White was convicted of Johnson’s murder after an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw his plea. He’s set to be sentenced in early May, facing the possibility of life in prison.

His lawyer said White intended to appeal against his conviction.

Police immediately following Johnson’s death said the doctoral student at Australian National University likely took his own life. That was determined despite the discovery that his wallet was missing from his clothes, which were folded in a pile at the top of the cliff.

A coronial inquest in 1989 found that Johnson – an openly gay man – had taken his own life, and, in a second inquest in 2012, a coroner was unable to explain how he fell.

After years of campaigning by Johnson’s family, a third inquest in 2017 found that the cliff from which Johnson fell was not only a popular spot for cruising, but was also known to be frequented by anti-gay gangs.

It was then ruled by State Coroner Michael Barnes that Johnson “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.” The judge in the case ruled that Johnson was the victim of a gay hate crime. 

The following year, a 1 million Australian dollar reward was offered by police for information into Johnson’s murder. Shortly before White’s arrest in 2020, Johnson’s older brother Steve matched the reward.

“I think he deserves what he has coming to him,” Steve Johnson told reporters after White pleaded guilty, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s a very sad, tragic thing that he did,” he said.


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Published on Jan 13, 2022