An appeals court in Australia earlier today set aside the conviction of the man who had pleaded guilty to the 1988 gay-bashing murder of an American citizen.
Scott Phillip White, 52, had declared himself “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” of the murder of postgraduate mathematician Scott Johnson, then 27, at a pretrial hearing earlier this year. White was quickly convicted but soon appealed his decision and applied to withdraw his guilty plea, saying the unexpected courtroom declaration of guilt was made under duress. According to a report in the Star Observer, a NSW Court of Criminal Appeal today overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial for White.
“In the present case we are unable to conclude that no substantial miscarriage of justice actually occurred because, although the matter might be thought to be finely balanced, we are not persuaded that the result would have been the same had the interests of justice test been applied to the White’s application for leave to withdraw his plea of guilty,” the court ruled in overturning White’s conviction while also setting aside his guilty plea.
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 applied for permanent residency before he was killed on December 8, 1988. His naked body was found at the bottom of the cliffs near Manley in New South Wales.
While Chief Justice Andrew Bell, Justices Richard Button, and Natalie Adams overturned the conviction and allowed White to withdraw his guilty plea, they did not declare him innocent and left open the possibility he could be convicted of a lesser crime.
“This is not a situation where ‘the case against the accused is overwhelming,’ or in which, if the matter proceeded to trial, a guilty verdict for the murder charge would be a foregone conclusion,” the court ruled. “The possibility of a lesser conviction, of manslaughter for example, or indeed complete acquittal, cannot be ruled out.”
Johnson’s brother, Steve Johnson, expressed dismay at the ruling.
“Certainly, my family and I are all incredibly disappointed – crestfallen – that we haven’t found justice for my brother yet after 34 years. We were hoping that we’d all be able to rest after today,” Steve Johnson said following the court’s ruling, the Guardian reports. “But we respect this process. I know even my brother Scott would appreciate the care that is being taken.”
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.
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.
In May, White was sentenced to 12 years in jail. The case now returns to a lower court for a retrial. The first hearing in the case is expected on December 1.