Suspect pleads guilty to manslaughter of gay man Scott Johnson in 1988

52-year-old Scott White pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter in relation to the death of Scott Johnson.

This article is about a suspect pleading guilty to manslaughter of Scott Johnson. In the image, a photo of Scott Johnson's profile.
Image: Twitter: @Andrew_Denney

On Thursday, February 23, Australian man Scott White pleaded guilty to manslaughter in relation to the death of American gay man Scott Johnson, who died after falling off a cliff in Sydney in 1988.

At the time of his death, Scott Johnson was a 27-year-old doctoral student at Australian National University in Canberra. After his body was found at the bottom of a cliff in North Head, Sydney, a well-known gay cruising spot, Johnson’s death was initially treated by police as a suicide. However, his family pushed for the case to be reopened, claiming that Scott had been pushed off the cliff, and pursued justice for over 30 years.

Police reopened the case in 2020 when they arrested Scott White and charged him with the murder of Scott Johnson. White then surprised his lawyers by pleading guilty to the murder in 2022 and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Such conviction was quashed in November last year when White withdrew his plea, saying that it was made under duress. The judges overturned his conviction and ordered a retrial.

On Thursday, White appeared before the New South Wales Supreme Court in Sydney, and he pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter in relation to the death of Scott Johnson. While both murder and manslaughter refer to types of homicide, manslaughter does not entail premeditation and thus usually carries less severe prison sentences.

According to ABC, during the hearing, the judge asked White: “You understand by pleading guilty to manslaughter, you’re accepting legal responsibility for his death but not for murdering him, you understand that?”. White replied to the question, saying: “Yeah, I do”. Prosecutors have already accepted the plea and White will be sentenced in June.

Commenting on this new development, Steve Johnson, the victim’s brother, said that this “might be the most emotional moment yet”.

“Reading the black-and-white of his confession, in which he states that 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 pretty angry,” he said. “Maybe one day White will explain why he was there.”

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans, who followed the case, praised Steve Johnson’s efforts in the pursuit of justice. “He’s been out to Australia dozens of times to get some sort of justice for his brother,” Yeomans said. “He was adamant from the very first day that he was rung by police that it wasn’t a suicide — that it was foul play involved. It’s vindicated everything he said.”

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