More than 30 years ago, the body of gay U.S. mathematician Scott Johnson was found at the bottom of a cliff in Australia. On Thursday, a man was convicted of Johnson’s murder.
The conviction comes only days after the man accused in Johnson’s death, Scott White, 50, made a surprising admission in court. White said in open court that he was “guilty, guilty, guilty” of the 1988 killing of the 27-year-old Johnson, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
The admission opened the way for the judge to convict White of Johnson’s murder.
It brings an end to the decades-long fight for justice by Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson.
“It’s over, finally,” Steve Johnson, a tech entrepreneur, told The New York Times. “This 33-year odyssey has come to a conclusion.”
Scott Johnson was a doctoral student at the Australian National University in Canberra. He’d moved to the country to be with his partner and had even applied for permanent residency before he was killed on December 8, 1988. His body was found below a cliff in Sydney.
The area his remains were found in was known to be a cruising spot for men looking for sexual liaisons. The Australian police originally reported the death as a suicide.
His brother didn’t believe it was. “I have never believed Scott killed himself,” Steve Johnson wrote in The Advocate in 2014. “Scott was one of his generation’s brightest academic stars, with a promising future. He was out to our family and living happily in Australia with his Australian partner. The day before he went missing, he had received news that he had finished the final proof for his mathematics Ph.D. — a day for celebration, not suicide.”
At the time of Johnson's death, Australian officials disregarded queer men and often refused to properly investigate their deaths, according to the Times.
Steve Johnson hired an investigative journalist to examine the case after he found out that some other men had died under similar circumstances and around the same time. In 2012, Steve Johnson was able to convince the court to overturn his brother’s suicide ruling. Police then began reinvestigating the case.
Five years later, another inquest found that Johnson had been the victim of an antigay hate crime. A reward of about $730,000 was offered for new information into his death. It was doubled by Steve Johnson.
In 2020, police charged White with Johnson’s murder. He had pleaded not guilty. However, on Monday he reportedly stood up at a pretrial hearing and admitted his guilt.
According to the Herald, he told his lawyers he was sorry and that he appreciated their work, adding “I can’t handle it.”
“No one was prepared for that, including me,” Steve Johnson told the Times. He had traveled to Sydney to attend the hearing.
In the following days, White’s attorneys attempted to have the admission thrown out, but the court found out that White had previously noted his intention to change his plea.
Sentencing for White is scheduled for May.
“[Scott] courageously lived his life as he wanted to,” Steve Johnson told the Associated Press at the time of White’s arrest. “I hope the friends and families of the other dozens of gay men who lost their lives find solace in what’s happened today and hope it opens the door to resolve some of the other mysterious deaths of men who have not yet received justice.”