American's 1988 Death in Sydney Takes Another Turn

Australian court overturns conviction in case of Scott Johnson
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 18, 2022 7:51 AM CST
American's 1988 Death in Sydney Takes Another Turn
Steve Johnson, right, and his wife Rosemarie arrive at the Supreme Court in Sydney, Australia on May 2, 2022, for a sentencing hearing in the murder of Scott Johnson, Steve's brother. The conviction has been overturned.   (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, Fie)

An Australian appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of a man who temporarily admitted murdering an American who fell to his death in 1988 from a Sydney cliff top that was known as a gay meeting place. Scott White, 52, was sentenced in May to 12 years and seven months in prison for the murder of 27-year-old mathematician Scott Johnson. White had surprised his lawyers by pleading guilty to murder during a pre-trial court hearing in January. 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.

White, who has an intellectual disability, explained to his lawyers that he had pleaded guilty due to stresses including seeing the alleged victim’s Boston-based brother Steve Johnson in court. The older brother had offered his own $1 million reward for information leading to the prosecution of Scott Johnson’s killer months before White’s arrest in 2020. Three judges of the New South Wales state Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney on Friday ruled that White should have been allowed to reverse his guilty plea, quashing his conviction and sentence, per the AP.

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. The murder charge will be considered by the New South Wales Supreme Court on Dec. 1 when White is likely to plead not guilty. Steve Johnson, who flew to Sydney for White’s two-day appeal last month, accepted the court’s ruling. "Whatever lies ahead, we’re ready for it," he said in an email.

Scott Johnson’s death was initially called a suicide, but his family pressed for further investigation. A coroner in 2017 found a number of assaults, some fatal, where the victims had been targeted because they were thought to be gay. In sentencing White, a 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. Los Angeles-born Scott Johnson had been openly gay. White faces a potential life sentence if convicted again. (Read more backstory on the case here.)

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