This article first appeared in The Advocate.
The Australian man convicted of the 1988 murder of gay U.S. national Scott Johnson now wants a new trial, claiming he only declared in court he was “guilty, guilty, guilty” because he feared his ex-wife.
Scott Phillip White, 52, stunned observers in court earlier this year when he took responsibility for killing the brilliant math postgraduate student whose naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manly in northern Sydney.
“Guilty, guilty, guilty,” White declared at a pre-trial hearing in January.
His lawyer now claims that White later told his lawyers, “I didn’t do it but I’m saying I’m doing it” and that “It’s the only way, she’s [his wife] going to come after me,” according to the Australian Associated Press. He also blamed the stress that came with seeing the victim’s brother Steve in court that day.
“I’d regard this situation as uniquely unusual,” White’s new lawyer, barrister Tim Game SC told the appeals court yesterday. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Game, who only recently came to represent White, said his client had “no advice at the point at which he pleaded guilty.”
Sally Dowling SC, the NSW director of public prosecutions, disputed White’s new claims, noting the convicted murderer had “the presence of mind to note” at the time that his declaration of guilt was “not a [split-second] decision.”
White’s ex-wife, Helen White, testified at the sentencing hearing in May that he “quite often bragged about bashing poofters.” She said she twice confronted him about the murder, first in 1988 and then again in 2008 after an article mentioned the crime.
“I remember asking him if this was one of the gay men that he’d bashed, and he said, ‘Oh, that girly-looking poofter,’” Helen White said.
She added that when she confronted White in 2008 with the news article about Johnson’s murder, he replied “The only good poofter is a dead poofter.”
She also said White claimed Johnson’s death wasn’t his fault because “the dumb c*nt ran off the cliff,” to which she testified that she replied, “Well, it is if you chased him.”
Following his conviction, White told his lawyers he now identifies as gay.
The cliffs surrounding the greater Sydney area were popular both with members of the gay community looking to hook up during the 1970s and ’80s and also with homophobic groups of men and youth who would assault and often murder gay men, throwing them or forcing them to leap from the cliffs onto the rocks below. As many as 80 gay men were killed in the area during the period, and police often refused to investigate, ruling the murders as death by suicide instead.
Johnson, 27, moved to Australia from the U.S. to be with his partner, Australian national Michael Noone, and to study for his Ph.D. His naked body was discovered by a fisherman at the base of cliffs near Manly in December 1988. His clothes were found neatly folded at the top of the cliff.
There had been three inquests into the Johnson murder. The first declared the case death by suicide. A second inquest was launched in 2012, which declared the case was still open. The third and final inquest found Johnson was the victim of murder and a hate crime. New detectives were assigned to the cold case, and White was soon identified as a suspect.
Johnson’s older brother, Steve Johnson, was instrumental in bringing White to justice. He had hired his own investigator and doubled the reward offered in the case. He told the court in May his brother was “brilliant” and would have excelled in what he called the “golden era for nerds” that followed his murder.
White received a 12-year jail sentence in May. His current hearing before the appeals court continues today.