Scott White has pleaded not guilty to the murder of American PhD student Scott Johnson in an alleged hate crime 32 years ago. 

White, who was 18 at the time of the murder, was arrested in May 2020 after a key informant came forward and helped break the cold case, and one of Sydney’s longest unresolved murders. Police allege that the pair met at a hotel in December 1988 before walking through bushland to a local gay beat spot at North Head. When Johnson began removing his clothes, White punched him, which caused Johnson to lose his balance and fall to his death from the cliffs. His clothes were found neatly folded near the edge of the cliff.

Johnson had moved to Australia to be with his partner only two years before his death. The pair split their time between Canberra and Sydney, with Johnson working on his mathematics PhD at ANU and Macquarie University. They had been together for five years at the time of his death.

A trial date will be set by the Supreme Court on March 5, with White being held at the Shortland Correctional Centre in the Hunter Valley until then.

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 The plea comes after three coronial inquests into Johnson’s death, with the first ruling his death was caused by suicide and the second resulting in an “inconclusive” ruling due to a lack of evidence. It was only through the determination of Johnson’s brother and attention from the media that a third inquest was held in 2017, which found that his death was “a result of actual or threatened violence.”

Scott Johnson’s death is just one of the 27 men who are believed to have been murdered in similar hate crimes in Sydney around the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the police investigations at the time were inadequate and dismissive, leaving friends and family with few avenues in which to find justice.

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