The man convicted of murdering gay man Scott Johnson has lodged an appeal after his shock confession to the 1988 crime in open court.
Lawyers for Scott White lodged a notice of intention to appeal last week in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal against his conviction.
On January 10, the 50-year-old stunned his lawyers during a Supreme Court hearing by declaring he was “guilty” of the 34-year-old crime.
“The plea was entered in a loud clear voice, and in an emphatic and determined manner,” Supreme Court Justice Helen Wilson said.
“The applicant did not appear distressed, agitated, or anxious during the arraignment, at least not to an extent beyond what might be expected.”
White’s public lawyers immediately – and unsuccessfully – tried to reverse the plea at the time.
Judge Wilson refused to withdraw it, convicting White of the murder.
White’s lawyers argued the court should withdraw the guilty plea because of White’s cognitive impairment, his previous indications to his lawyers of his innocence, his failure to tell lawyers of the plea, and his “extreme agitation” on that day.
The lawyers argued “the integrity of the plea was so undermined that to hold White to it would constitute a miscarriage of justice.”
Conversation between Scott White and lawyers
After the surprise admission in court, White subsequently had a conversation with his lawyers.
His lawyers tendered longhand notes of the conference to the court, taken by legal aid lawyer Louise Sutherland.
After declaring his guilt, White apologised to his lawyers, telling them he appreciated their work “but I can’t handle it”.
“If I get out she’ll just come after me again, I can’t do it, I just can’t, I’m sorry,” White said, according to the notes.
Sutherland clarified the reference to “she” was a reference to his former wife. She would have appeared in court if the case had proceeded to trial, according to the notes.
“I am better off in here. I’m safe in here. This is too much stress,” White went on.
Senior counsel Belinda Rigg SC replied, “You told us before court you were going to say not guilty and you have told us consistently that you didn’t do it.”
White responded, “I didn’t. I didn’t do it, but I’m saying I did it, you know what I mean. I’m saying that. Ten years, I’ll take that.”
Rigg warned White that he would not receive a sentence as short as 10 years.
“You need to understand that if you plead guilty, you are telling the whole world that you killed Scott Johnson, and that you intended to kill him,” she said, to which White replied, “Yep.”
“But you’ve said you didn’t do it,” Rigg then said, to which White replied, “I didn’t. But it’s the only way. She’s going to come after me.”
Rigg later explained to White she was confident the legal team could prove that White’s former wife had been “vindictive” towards him and was not a reliable witness.
Surprise guilty plea was not a ‘split decision’
But during the conference, White told his team his guilty plea was not “a split decision”.
Sutherland and judge Helen Wilson both took that to mean White hadn’t made the decision to plead guilty “on the spur of the moment”.
White said to his legal team, “I can see the brother there, the police pointing me out. It’s too much.”
Asked by the lawyers why he didn’t tell them about the guilty plea beforehand, White replied he was “thinking about it but I didn’t.”
He also added that he “just [wants] it to be put to rest” adding Scott “wouldn’t want this, dragging his name through all of this.”
White was later asked what he would say if he was again asked to plead, to which he responded, “Not guilty.”
He later signed legal instructions which read in part, “Today I was confused… I was stressed. I’ve had no food, no sleep, no shower.
“I saw the brother of the deceased in court, I saw police point at me… I maintain that I didn’t cause Scott Johnson’s death.”
Crown prosecutors argued “a plea entered intentionally by an accused person who has full knowledge of all the facts amounts to a cogent admission of the elements of the offence.”
Such a plea should “not be set aside without a good and substantial reason”, they submitted.
Judge found Scott White mentally fit and remorseful
On January 13, New South Wales Supreme Court judge Helen Wilson rejected the application to withdraw the guilty plea.
She ruled there was “insufficient evidence to raise any real question over the integrity of the plea.”
While White was “cognitively impaired,” Wilson ruled, multiple experts had declared him mentally fit to plead.
This was one of a dozen matters she considered as part of her decision.
Others included White’s “full knowledge of the nature of the charge”. She also said the guilty plea wasn’t a mistake nor a decision “in haste or on the spur of the moment”.
White was “able to decide for himself which plea he should enter, even when anxious and distressed,” the judge said.
“The considered reasons the applicant advanced for the [guilty] plea [were] reasons with both a flavour to them of remorse for and acceptance of responsibility for Dr Johnson’s death,” Judge Wilson said.
“And reasons that reflect self-interest, including a belief that a reduced sentence would follow. And a wish to avoid the stress of trial proceedings.”
She found it “difficult to accept” any innocent person would “be prepared to plead guilty to murder … simply to assuage the distress of a deceased stranger’s family, or out of respect for the stranger’s memory.”
The man also had not raised his innocence during the meeting with lawyers until it was mentioned by them, Wilson said.
“There can be no real suggestion that the applicant was other than in possession of the full facts of the charge against him when he pleaded guilty,” she said.
“The circumstances in which the plea was entered do not detract from its integrity.”
Appeal submissions not yet lodged in court
A spokesperson for the NSW Public Defenders said submissions regarding Scott White’s appeal had not yet been lodged.
Scott White was expected to be sentenced for Scott Johnson’s murder in May.
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