Scott White, arrested in May 2020 in connection with the Dec 1988 unsolved death of American mathematician Scott Johnson near North Head, Manly, sensationally changed his plea to guilty during a pre-trial hearing on 8 Jan in the NSW Supreme Court.
Whilst the court officer read out the charges against him, White, 50, reportedly interrupted, loudly proclaiming, “Guilty! I’m guilty! Guilty!”
White’s legal defence team then tried to reverse the admission, claiming it was caused by stress and that the Court’s accepting it would amount to a “miscarriage of justice”.
However, after assessing the evidence, on 13 Jan, Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson refused White and his legal team leave to withdraw his guilty plea, and convicted him of the 34-year-old murder.
The Court heard that White had previously admitted his involvement in Johnson’s murder to NSW Police, but then withdrew his confession and returned to insisting his innocence.
In the summary of her judgement, Justice Wilson said, “It is difficult to accept that any innocent person who is fit to be tried, even a person who has some level of cognitive impairment, would be prepared to plead guilty to the murder of another human being simply to assuage the distress of a deceased stranger’s family, or out of respect for the stranger’s memory.
“The applicant’s expressed apparent remorse for Dr Johnson’s death and the grief of his family rises above mere compassion and amounts to some acknowledgment of personal responsibility and remorse for Dr Johnson’s death, consistent with an acknowledgment of having played a role in that death.”
White, who remains in custody, will be formally sentenced on 2 May 2022.
Justice Wilson also lifted a non-publication order that had previously been imposed to prevent media coverage of the proceedings.
Murder with malice
It is asserted that White punched then pushed his victim, a 27-year-old mathematical prodigy, over the cliff edge at Blue Fish Point, near North Head Wastewater Treatment Plant, Manly.
Scott Johnson, who, with his brother Steve, had developed the world’s first algorithm that enabled the transfer of digital photos online, then fell 50 metres to a rock ledge below. His naked body was found two days later by a 13-year-old boy and two spear fishermen.
Blue Fish Point, a clifftop peninsula facing the Pacific Ocean, was only accessible by a gap in a three-metre high sandstone wall that runs its length and obscures the headland from the forested paths behind.
In 1988 it was known as a ‘gay beat’ (a discreet meeting spot for homosexual men).
Steve Johnson, the victim’s older brother who tirelessly campaigned to investigate his brother’s death as a murder, after the initial Inquiry ruled it suicide (and a reopened Inquiry in Feb 2013 returned an open verdict), was shocked by White’s sudden plea reversal.
He told ABC Radio on 14 Jan that it “surprised everyone in the courtroom! The police were sure they had the right person but you’re never sure until you hear those words from the person themselves, and then, suddenly, I know who killed my brother.”
Over a two-decade period from 1980, many homosexual men were systematically targeted by ‘gay bashers’, who assaulted and sometimes killed their victims. Those attacked along Sydney’s coastline, from the Northern Beaches to Cronulla and particularly around Bronte and Tamarama, were often thrown into the sea.
According to the National Homicide Monitoring Program, there were 37 male victims of gay-hate attacks in Sydney metropolitan area between 1 July 1989 and 30 June 1999, when ‘gay bashing’ reached a peak.
However, the number is probably higher. Criminologist Stephen Tomsen, who advises NSW Police, claims up to 74 gay men were murdered in unprovoked attacks between 1980 and 2000.