CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian pleaded guilty on Thursday to the manslaughter of an American who fell to his death 35 years ago from a Sydney clifftop that was known as a gay meeting place.
Scott White’s admission in the New South Wales state Supreme Court comes three months after his conviction for murdering Scott Johnson was overturned by an appeals court.
The family of the Los Angeles-born Johnson had fought for years to overturn an initial finding that the 27-year-old mathematician had taken his own life in 1988.
White, 52, was arrested in Sydney in 2020 and pleaded not guilty to the murder of Johnson, who was an Australian National University Ph.D. student living in the capital, Canberra, when he died.
White took his lawyers by surprise in January last year by pleading guilty to murder during a pretrial hearing.
About 20 minutes later, White signed a statement saying that he had been “confused” when he pleaded guilty, had not caused Johnson’s death 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.
In sentencing White, the judge said she did not find beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was a gay hate crime, which would have led to a longer prison term. Johnson had been openly gay.
In November, three judges of the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney ruled that White should have been allowed to reverse his guilty plea, quashing his conviction and sentence.
The judges said there was a question about White’s culpability for murder that could have been raised in a trial. A trial could have resulted in his acquittal or conviction of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
White on Thursday pleaded not guilty to murder and guilty to manslaughter. Prosecutors had earlier agreed with White’s lawyers to accept the plea.
Police Deputy Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans told reporters outside court that the conviction vindicated the Johnson family’s long fight for justice, since the 1989 ruling by a coroner that his death was a suicide.
“Look, a very emotional day for everyone, especially the Johnson family, who’ve been through a very traumatic time over the past 34 years and today really vindicates that family, what they’ve done over many, many years,” Yeomans said.
“We’re very, very happy from a police point of view, but obviously, more importantly for the Johnson family, it just comes to an end a very, very long saga in their lives, some 34 years this has been going on for, that they’ve fought for justice, and finally (it’s) come to fruition today,” he added.
White will be sentenced later.