When a man surprisingly pleaded guilty to a gay hate murder, his legal team scrambled to overturn it. Here’s why their request was refused.
A judge has explained why she refused to overturn a guilty plea “emphatically” made in open court by a man accused of the 1988 murder of Scott Johnson.
Scott Phillip White, 50, surprisingly pleaded guilty on Monday to the murder of American mathematician Scott Johnson after previously denying he had killed him.
“Guilty. I’m guilty. Guilty”, White said loudly over the top of the court officer reading out the charge.
The naked body of Dr Johnson, 27, was found on rocks at the bottom of Manly’s North Head, which was then known as a gay cruising spot. His clothes were folded neatly at the top of the cliff above.
White’s legal team quickly applied to withdraw the guilty plea, arguing he did not stand by it. But Justice Helen Wilson refused that application and convicted White for Dr Johnson’s murder.
“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,” Justice Wilson said in her judgment.
White told his legal team he pleaded guilty because “wanted to put the matter to rest” for Mr Johnson and his family and added it was not a “split (second) decision”.
“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,” Justice Wilson added.
She said it was clear White had “decided for himself, having thought about it over an extended period, that he wished to plead guilty”.
She decided the guilty plea must be accepted.
White’s legal team plans to appeal the orders, which include the conviction, the court was told.
The May 2 trial date has now been vacated and the matter is instead listed for a sentence hearing.
What was revealed in court
Justice Wilson recalled in a “very emphatic manner (White said) ‘Guilty, I’m guilty’, speaking over the top of my associate” as she began to read out the charge.
He then said the word “guilty” for the third time.
“Three iterations. I recall three distinct entries of a plea … ‘Guilty. I’m guilty. Guilty’ in a manner which is very determined and firm and using a loud and clear voice,” Justice Wilson told the court.
White’s legal team worked to reverse the plea on Tuesday, saying he had been stressed on the morning of the court appearance.
His barrister Belinda Rigg SC argued that White had consistently told them he didn’t murder Dr Johnson and that sticking to the plea amounted to a “miscarriage of justice”.
In notes from a meeting he had with his legal team in the cells after his Monday court appearance, White said it wasn’t a “split (second) decision” to change his plea.
“This isn’t a split decision … I’ve had four occasions. You look on the system,” White said about the number of times he had talked to his legal team about changing his plea from not guilty to guilty.
His lawyer Louise Sutherland, who took the stand, agreed it was “not isolated” and was something White did in “situations of intense stress”.
When asked by his legal team why he didn’t tell them of his intention to change his plea ahead of the court sitting on Monday, White said: “I was thinking about it, but didn’t. I just wanted it to be put to rest for Scott, for the brother. He needs to let this go. He needs to understand he can’t do that. Gay people are private.
“Did he ever think about why he, Scott, came over here? Why he was here for five years? Why can’t he understand how he might have been feeling about liking other blokes?
“The deceased wouldn’t have wanted this; dragging his name through all of this.”
Ms Sutherland said she took it to be a “statement of empathy”, from White’s perspective, about Mr Johnson’s death and the impact on his family.
She added: “(His) feelings around the deceased being a person of gay sexuality and expressing his feelings around whether or not it’s appropriate for the manner of his death to still be the subject to such very stressful deliberation at this time.”
White had earlier mentioned to his legal team that he could see Dr Johnson’s brother in court on Monday morning, saying “it’s too much”.
In that meeting, his legal counsel had also explained what it meant if he pleaded guilty to the murder: “You are telling the whole world you killed Scott Johnson and you intended to kill him or cause him serious harm”, to which White responded: “Yes”, suggesting he understood.
“But you said you didn’t do it,” his lawyers added.
White responded: “I didn’t, but it’s the only way” and referred to his ex-wife “coming after him”.
White also said, “Saying 10 years, I’ll take that.”
Later, the crown prosecutor argued that “feeling sorry for the alleged victim’s brother” and speaking of “putting it to rest for the family” were things a person would say for things they had a “guilty feeling, remorse about”.
The prosecutor said you could “infer there was some aspect of consciousness of guilt reflected in the plea that was entered in court on Monday”.
He added: “(He’s) implicitly identifying with the deceased as if he’s spoken to him or has some knowledge of him”.
The crown prosecutor argued that White might have been “painted into a corner” with his not guilty plea and could have felt he needed to keep that up for his legal team after all the work they had done for him.
He said this was evident in the first thing White said to his legal team after changing his plea: “I’m sorry to all of you. I appreciate all the work you’ve done, but I can’t handle it.”
He argued that White was perfectly capable of telling his lawyers and the court what he wanted to do.
In closing, the prosecutor said Justice Wilson would “not be persuaded that a miscarriage of justice has occurred … no matter what he has said to his lawyers”.
History of the case
White was arrested in May 2020 at his Lane Cove home and charged with murder, just weeks after NSW Police announced a $2m reward for information into the mystery case.
Police allege White went with Dr Johnson to the cliffs at North Head on December 10, 1988.
Johnson had already removed his clothes when White allegedly panicked and punched him, causing him to fall to his death, according to the police case.
The case has a vexed history.
In the years since 1988, one coronial inquest into the death of Dr Johnson ruled he had died by suicide, while another inquest was inconclusive.
As a result, Dr Johnson’s US-based family began campaigning for justice.
In a third inquest in 2017, magistrate Michael Barnes found that Dr Johnson was the victim of a hate crime and fell off the cliff as a result of actual or threatened violence.
Police announced a $1m reward for information to solve the case in December 2018, which doubled to $2m in March 2020.
Dr Johnson’s brother, Steve, had put up the extra $1m.