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Suspect in 1988 Death of Gay Man Scott Johnson Pleads Guilty to Manslaughter

Suspect in 1988 Death of Gay Man Scott Johnson Pleads Guilty to Manslaughter

Scott Johnson

Johnson, an American living in Australia, died after plunging from a cliff. His family has insisted for years that there was foul play involved.

Scott White pleaded guilty to manslaughter Thursday in the 1988 death of gay American Scott Johnson, who died after plunging from a cliff in Australia.

For years, Australian authorities considered Johnson’s death a suicide, with a coroner having ruled to that effect in 1989. But his family fought to have the case reopened, saying he was more likely thrown or pushed off the cliff, which was in a gay cruising area in New South Wales. Johnson, a mathematician, was a 27-year-old doctoral student at Australian National University in Canberra at the time of his death. His naked body was found at the bottom of the cliff.

Police arrested White in 2020, and he surprised his lawyers by pleading guilty to murder in January 2022 in New South Wales Supreme Court. He said he was “guilty, guilty, guilty” and was convicted. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but the judge in the case did not rule that Johnson’s death was an antigay hate crime, saying there was insufficient evidence.

But White then tried to withdraw the plea, as he said it was made under duress, and filed an appeal. Judges in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal ruled in November that he should have been allowed to withdraw the plea, and they overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.

That led to his guilty plea to the lesser charge of manslaughter, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reports. Prosecutors had already agreed to accept the plea. White will be sentenced in June.

“You understand by pleading guilty to manslaughter you’re accepting legal responsibility for his death but not for murdering him, you understand that?” NSW Supreme Court Justice Robert Beech-Jones asked White in a Sydney courtroom Thursday, according to the ABC. He replied that he did.

Steve Johnson, Scott Johnson’s brother, told the Australian outlet that this “might be the most emotional moment yet.”

“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.

“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, Johnson added.

Steve Johnson was at home in the U.S. during this week’s proceedings, but he and other family members said they plan to travel to Australia for the sentencing.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Yeomans told the ABC that he was satisfied with White’s plea, and he praised Steve Johnson’s efforts. “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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