Man pleads guilty to killing Scott Johnson: The gay student whose death has haunted Australia for years

The man previously convicted of killing American man Scott Johnson in Sydney, Australia, 35 years ago has pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Johnson’s body was found naked at the bottom of the North Head cliffs in 1988, having fallen from the cliff top that was a known gay meeting place.

Scott White was originally charged with murder in May 2020 and pleaded guilty during a January 2022 pre-trial hearing at the New South Wales Supreme Court.

He went on to be sentenced to 12 years in jail last May but that conviction was then overturned in the state’s Court of Criminal Appeal, which led to the current retrial.

However, White has now pleaded guilty to manslaughter and not guilty to murder, ABC News reported.

The judge asked White if he understood that the guilty manslaughter plea meant he was “accepting legal responsibility for his [Johnson’s] death”.

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White responded: “Yeah I do,” ABC reported.

(Facebook/justice for scott johnson)
Scott Johnson’s brother Steve has campaigned tirelessly for justice. (Facebook/Justice for Scott Johnson)

Scott White’s original conviction was quashed because he wanted to withdraw his initial guilty plea before sentencing and the appeals court found the judge at the time applied the wrong legal test to determine why it was not withdrawn.

It has been reported White signed a statement less than 30 minutes after his initial plea maintaining he didn’t cause Johnson’s death, as well as being confused and stressed.

Johnson’s brother Steve, speaking to ABC News, said Thursday’s (23 February) proceedings “might be the most emotional yet”.

He was still hoping White would one day explain why he was at the cliff top with Johnson and what his intention was — noting he had seen court documents agreed by prosecutors and defence lawyers that White had punched his brother prior to the fall.

“I guess a corner of my heart will wonder if I could ever have a conversation with the man.”

“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.

It’s unclear what that “one last piece of evidence” is, but the Associated Press stated media previously reporting police had intercepted a prison phone call between White and a relative last October where he confessed to striking Johnson.

Man who murdered gay student Scott Johnson in 1988 sentenced to 12 years in jail
Scott Johnson’s body was found at the bottom of cliffs on a Sydney beach. (Steve Johnson/BBC)

The road to this outcome has been long for Johnson’s family, who tirelessly campaigned for justice, with the death originally ruled a suicide.

In 2018, a coroner’s inquest ruled Johnson had likely died as a result of a homophobic hate crime, which spurred million-dollar rewards from Police and Johnson’s family for information about case.

Outside the court, Police Deputy Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans said it was a “very emotional day for everyone” and the outcome “really vindicates” the Johnson family, as per the Associated Press.

White is due to be sentenced on June 6, 2023.