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Was Gregory Dickens Sentenced to Death Because He Was Gay?

A review of a decades-old case resurfaces questions of judicial bias in Arizona, and is relevant to the state’s current judicial appointees.

This is an illustration of a towering judge holding the "scales of justice." A silhouette of a man has fallen off one of the scales. His shirt is the colors of the rainbow LGBTQ pride flag.
Theo Grace Quest for LOOKOUT

This story was published in partnership with LOOKOUT, Arizona’s only investigative news site for LGBTQ+ news.

When the sun sets on Yuma—a small southwestern city along the U.S.-Mexico border that housed Arizona’s first prison—orange, purple, and red hues drench the landscape. The mountains that flank the city’s only highway cast shadows over sweeping lettuce farms that creep into the desert brush. 

That road, Interstate 8, carves through the landscape and connects Tucson to San Diego.

Just after one such sunset on Sept. 10, 1991, Bryan and Lauren Bernstein, both 22 years old, were shot to death on the interstate while passing through town.

The details surrounding the Bernstein’s deaths aren’t debated: on that summer night, 16-year-old Travis Amaral—who’d previously been accused of beating a nurse and being involved in another murder—walked up to the couple, who were parked at a rest stop on the highway. He robbed them and shot them both. Laura was killed immediately. Bryan was pronounced dead at a hospital the next day. Amaral was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

But another man, Gregory Dickens, was sentenced to death because he drove the car that got Amaral there. 

Past reporting on the Bernsteins’ deaths has focused on the trial and Dickens’s role in their murder. Local newspapers coined Dickens the “rest stop killer,” even though he never actually killed anyone. 

In hindsight, it appears startling that the person who received the harshest punishment in the case never actually killed anyone. But a review of more than 600 pages of court records by LOOKOUT and The Appeal has shed light on why: the judge who sentenced Dickens, Judge Tom C. Cole, held bigoted beliefs against gay men—including his own son, who was dying of an AIDS-related illness. 

Dickens was a gay man with a criminal history of pedophilia. It’s unclear if Amaral was an unwilling participant in his relationship with Dickens—he said he was groomed by Dickens, who was in his 20s at the time—or if their love story was a salacious detail crafted by local news. 

In interviews, legal experts said that Dickens’s story highlights how a lack of oversight lets judges exert clear bias on the bench—and how lax rules let judges discriminate against members of marginalized communities, especially LGBTQ+ people.                                    

The only other local news outlet to publish a story on the judge’s homophobia was the Phoenix New Times, which did so in 2001 when Dickens filed an appeal for unfair treatment by the judge two years prior.

In its headline, the New Times alluded that Dickens was pulling “The F—g Card.”

Gregory Scott Dickens was born in the 1960s and grew up in San Diego, California during the era when the city established its first Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. He was quick to work by age 12, and told a psychologist during his trial that he started a landscaping business but learned that his true passion was helping other people through social work.

The youngest of four brothers, Dickens said that he never felt he had a tumultuous childhood. There was turmoil, but it wasn’t what caused him to end up in relationships with young boys or be sentenced to die. He said his upbringing was the same “as in any family.”

He caught his first felony in the 1980s. Before being tried for the death of the Bernsteins, he had three felony charges: one for a forgery, and two for “lewd and lascivious acts” with minors. 

Dickens was released from jail and placed on probation when he met Amaral, a 14-year-old who had a much more violent past. Dickens was working at Oak Grove Institute, a residential treatment center in San Diego for high-risk youths. While Amaral lived and was treated there, he allegedly assaulted a nurse, was known to carry guns, and had bragged about being involved in another murder. 

Dickens felt Amaral’s incidents stemmed from his troubled youth and said he “blew it off,” according to court transcripts. 

Dickens repeatedly claimed the pair had a romantic and intimate relationship. Amaral denies that. In an email Amaral described himself as “one of [Dickens’s] many victims” and said he was not gay. 

After Dickens left the facility where Amaral was treated a year later, Amaral called to say he was running away, according to Dickens’ testimony during his murder trial. He said he bought Amaral a bus ticket, and the two spent a few days together before driving back to San Diego. 

According to Amaral, it was Dickens’s idea to rob and kill the couple at the Interstate rest stop. Amaral said Dickens gave him a walkie-talkie, told him to rob the couple, and then to “not leave any witnesses.” But a jury didn’t find Amaral’s story credible, and even the state prosecutor later admitted during an appeal that his version of events shouldn’t be believed.

In Dickens’s testimony, Amaral wanted to drive East to Florida. The two pulled over at a rest stop and fought, and Amaral ran off across the interstate. When Dickens looked back, he said he heard two gunshots, panicked, and drove back to Tucson. 

It’s not clear why Dickens turned around back to Yuma. But he did and said he picked Amaral up on the side of the road.

The next day, a store clerk called the police after the two used one of the victim’s credit cards at a clothing store. The day after that, police found Amaral at a bus station. The officers thought he was a runaway and booked him at the county juvenile court center in Yuma. He later admitted to the murders. Dickens was soon captured in California and transported to Yuma.

As the two men prepared for their court appearances, the judge overseeing their case, Tom Cole, was actively harassing and abusing his son, Scott, for being gay. 

The younger Cole had been convicted of forgery and lived in Perryville Prison just west of Phoenix, which is now the state’s all-women facility. Tom, who at the time presided in Yuma County Superior Court, routinely sent Scott homophobic letters.

A man who shared a cell with Scott named Richard Stewart later said in an affidavit that Judge Cole’s letters were sometimes scathing and laced with bigoted comments toward his son and other gay men. 

“Judge Cole would lash out at Scott and write belligerent, vulgar and degrading things to Scott about his homosexuality,” Stewart wrote. 

In one letter, Cole told his son, “I hope you die in prison like all the rest of your f—got friends.”

Stewart’s impression of Judge Cole was that he looked “imposing” and not dissimilar to Scott. But the similarities ended there. At one point, Stewart remembered Judge Cole writing that he wished Scott had died instead of his other son, who was electrocuted a few years before. The judge ended his letter by calling Scott a “damn f—got.”

Stewart wrote that it “was as if Judge Cole could not or would not believe that his genes could produce a gay son. Judge Cole seemed more angry and upset about how Scott’s homosexuality reflected on Judge Cole than about anything else.”

In a 1999 affidavit, Scott Cole’s public defender, Peter R. Claussen, said it was clear Judge Cole harbored “intense disapproval” of his son’s homosexuality, and blamed his son for contracting the AIDS virus that eventually killed him. 

Kevin Timar, Scott’s one-time boyfriend, said that Scott often came home after visiting his father with bruises on his face. When the two moved in together, Scott warned Timar not to answer the phone, out of fear that his father would find out he was living with a man. 

Both Timar and Claussen could not be reached for comment. 

One day, by accident, Timar answered a call. Judge Cole was on the other line. 

“He warned me that he was on his way,” Timar wrote in his affidavit. Timar left the house and returned after work to find Scott bruised and beaten. 

In affidavits, Scott’s friends said that, after he told his father he was performing in drag and participated in the “Miss Tucson” pageant, Scott came home with a broken car windshield and a black eye.

In court, Dickens’ lawyers argued Judge Cole’s homophobic bias against his son meant he should not oversee a gay man’s death penalty case.

In a September 2000 legal petition to the Arizona Supreme Court, Dickens’s attorneys argued that, “Mr. Dickens…represented the embodiment of everything that Judge Cole hated.”

“If Judge Cole was willing to do this to his own flesh and blood, it is hardly a stretch to suggest that such deep sentiments would creep into Judge Cole’s perception of Mr. Dickens, and taint the fairness of Mr. Dickens’ trial,” Dickens’s attorneys wrote.

One of Dickens’s original attorneys, Daphne Budge, could not be reached for this piece. The other lawyer representing Dickens, Jess Lorona, declined to speak. 

During the trial, Dickens told the court that it was Amaral’s idea to cross the interstate to rob and murder the Bernsteins. But in a move that has been criticized by Dickens’ attorneys, Cole allowed the state to question Amaral after the defense had already rested its case. 

Amaral testified that the robbery and subsequent murders were Dickens’s idea, and that Dickens fed the teen instructions through walkie-talkies.

Those walkie-talkies were never found, and a jury eventually acquitted Dickens of premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit murder. However, Arizona’s first-degree “felony murder” statute says that anyone who participated in a murder—even if they did not kill anyone—can be convicted for the death. The jury found Dickens guilty of felony murder and armed robbery. 

Cole later sentenced Dickens to death.

Dickens certainly isn’t the first queer person to be sentenced to death due to anti-LGBTQ+ bias. 

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group, along with organizations including the ACLU of North Dakota, The National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National LGBT Bar Association, filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 on behalf of another man named Charles Rhines. Rhines was sentenced to death in January 1993 in large part because of anti-gay bias on the part of jurors, who questioned whether prison would be less of a punishment than death because of Rhines’s homosexuality. 

Richard Saenz, who helped represent Lambda Legal on the brief, says Dickens’s case is unique. Saenz said Cole’s extreme bias had to have impacted the case significantly. But Saenz and other legal experts say the judge’s bias isn’t exactly a relic of a bygone era.

A January 2021 report from Lambda Legal details that almost 40 percent of the federal appeals court judges appointed by former President Donald Trump harbored some anti-LGBTQ+ bias. 

For LGBTQ+ defendants, this runs not just the obvious risk of tainting their cases, but sowing doubt in the legal system as a whole. 

In another recent Lambda Legal report about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the criminal legal system, almost two-thirds of survey respondents said they have little to no trust in the court system. Saenz says cases like Dickens have only added to that distrust. 

“Judges are supposed to be leaders of the community, people we look up to as being fair,” Saenz said. “And when the message coming from some of them is, ‘you’re not going to be respected or I’m refusing to respect you,’ that is a very dangerous thing to have out there.”

For queer Arizonans in particular, that specter of bias is especially timely after former Gov. Doug Ducey expanded the state Supreme Court and stacked the bench with allies, including former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has a history of denying equal treatment to LGBTQ+ people.

While serving as Maricopa County Attorney, Montgomery refused to provide LGBTQ+ couples free legal assistance in uncontested adoption cases after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. After a lesbian couple tried to use the free legal aid that had been routinely afforded to opposite-sex couples, Montgomery faced legal threats from the ACLU. He then outsourced the work to a law firm, costing taxpayers roughly $750,000 a year, the Arizona Republic reported. 

With Montgomery now sitting on the state’s supreme court, Jared Keenan, the ACLU of Arizona’s legal director, says the threat of bias bleeding into a case is that much more real.

“When you ask ‘can anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ bias claims occur again?’ 100 percent,” Keenan said. “But most criminal cases in Arizona are going to end at the state Supreme Court, and so he is one of seven votes on what cases to take and how to resolve them. And that’s problematic.”

In response to a request for comment, Mongtomery said “this narrative is untruthful and I will not dedicate any time responding to false allegations of bias.”

In interviews with LOOKOUT and The Appeal, experts at Lambda Legal and the ACLU said the judicial system—in theory—has checks and balances to ensure anti-LGBTQ+ bias doesn’t creep into the courtroom. Jury questioning is designed to root out bias on the part of jurors. 

Judges, though, are different.

“I think one big problem with a case like this is there’s clearly bias here, and it’s clearly a problem that should have allowed for a new trial or some sort of relief,” Keenan said, but added that Dickens’s case illustrates the difficulty to prove bias in a case. “You’re essentially asking someone whose trial was tainted with bias to then prove a counterfactual. And that’s a very tall order. And it’s why very few appeals are successful.”

After the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the sentence against him on direct appeal in 1996, Dickens’s attorneys filed for post-conviction relief in front of Judge Cole three years later. But the case was moved to Pima County after evidence of Judge Cole’s history of homophobia and violence toward his son was submitted to the court. 

Superior Court Judge Michael Cruikshank rejected arguments that Cole’s abuse and homophobia toward his son warranted reassigning the case, and said that the examples given by Dickens’s lawyers only showed family troubles, not bias. 

“Dickens offers no evidence that begins to suggest, much less constitute a colorable claim, that the judge in this case was biased against him,” Cruikshank wrote in the decision. “The affidavits submitted suggest, at most, that the judge may have had a difficult relationship with his son.”

Cole then took over the case and denied Dickens’s bid for post-conviction relief in 2000. 

In April 2001, Dickens’s new federal public defenders filed a habeas petition—a legal argument alleging unlawful imprisonment—in Arizona federal court. In the petition, they argued for the first time that, along with ineffective counsel, Dickens also suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and organic brain damage. 

The federal court barred those new claims and rejected the habeas petition in July 2008. Weeks later, he appealed to the Ninth Circuit. 

Eventually, the Ninth Circuit on Jan. 23, 2014 granted Dickens a new hearing over whether he could raise his ineffective counsel claims. Judge Cole died the same day.

The state of Arizona asked the appellate court to vacate that decision in light of Dickens’s’ eventual death, but lost.

Four days after the appeals court’s decision, Dickens—who was then 48 years old, clean-shaven, and gray-haired— killed himself. 

On Jan. 27, 2014, Dickens died by suicide in his single-occupancy cell at the Eyman prison complex in Florence, Arizona. He reportedly left no note. 

Robin Konrad, one of Dickens’s last public defenders, said Cole’s overt bias was going to be central to arguments at his new trial if it were not for Dickens’s suicide.

“Gregory would still be alive today if it weren’t for Judge Cole,” she said.

Three days before Dickens died, the Yuma Sun published a feature on Cole, and a separate obituary for the judge. The piece said the 76-year-old retired judge died by his wife’s side at home, though no cause of death was detailed. The article praised the judge for his decades-long legal career and for creating the Yuma County Adult Drug Court in 1998. A professional headshot of the judge accompanied both pieces.

The Sun also ran news Dickens’ death also ran above the fold, along with his mugshot.