Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas announced Thursday that 21-year-old Samuel Lincoln Woodward, of Newport Beach, who was charged with murder in the stabbing death of his former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein, will also face a hate crime sentencing enhancement.
Rackauckas said prosecutors added the hate crime enhancement based on new evidence suggesting that Woodward killed 19-year-old Bernstein because Bernstein was gay.
“A hate crime enhancement based on sexual orientation is appropriate due to the evidence developed by looking at Woodward’s cell phone, laptop, and social media,” Rackauckas said in a press conference Thursday. “All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”
Rackauckas declined to elaborate on the evidence investigators discovered.
The family of the murdered pre-med college student had maintained that they believed he was victim of a hate crime, though prosecutors did not include that charge initially.
Bernstein’s murder made national headlines after his body, with more than 20 stab wounds, was discovered in a shallow grave in a park in Lake Forest on Jan. 9, a week after he disappeared.
Bernstein’s high school classmate, Woodward, then 20, was arrested on Jan. 12 after DNA evidence found at the grave and in Woodward’s car linked him to the slaying. No murder weapon has been found.
The hate crime sentencing enhancement means that if Woodward is convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in state prison without parole. Before Thursday’s announcement, the maximum he could have spent behind bars was 26 years to life, according to prosecutors.
Woodward has pleaded not guilty to murder and denied the hate crime allegation, claiming a personal use of a knife. He is expected to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 22, according to Orange County Superior Court records, the Los Angeles Times reports.
According to a search warrant affidavit, which the Orange County Register obtained before it was sealed last January, Woodward claimed that Bernstein tried to kiss him on the lips. During questioning, Woodward told investigators the kiss was unwanted and he pushed Bernstein away, according to the affidavit. Detectives noted that Woodward clenched his jaw and fists when recounting the incident, telling them he wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot” and tell him to get off him.
Although information indicating Bernstein was gay did not come out in initial reports, his parents appeared to confirm it once the Orange County Register reported the details of his death.
“Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein wrote in a blog posting. “We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community.”
They added that the investigation was continuing, writing, “There is still much discovery to be done and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime.”
Bernstein, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was home for the winter break visiting his parents in Lake Forest. After arranging via Snapchat to meet for a late night visit, Woodward picked up Bernstein at approximately 11 p.m. on January 2 and drove to the parking lot of a Lake Forest Hobby Lobby store, near Borrego Park.
Bernstein’s parents reported him missing the next day when he missed a dental appointment and they found his wallet and glasses in his bedroom. His body was discovered a week later in Borrego Park in Lake Forest after rains exposed parts of the remains.
Bernstein, who weighed 135 pounds, and Woodward, who weighs 185 pounds, both attended high school at the prestigious Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana.
Last summer, Bernstein indicated to friends via text messages that he thought Woodward was sexually interested in him, but that “he made me promise not to tell anyone.”
Blood found on a sleeping bag in Woodward’s rental car matched that of Bernstein. Woodward’s hands and arms had scratches and abrasions and there was dirt under his fingernails. Woodward told investigators the scratches were from a “fight club” and the dirt came when he fell in a muddy puddle.
Woodward told detectives Bernstein got out of the car after the attempted kiss and went to the nearby park. Woodward said he drove to see a girlfriend in Tustin, but could not tell investigators the girlfriend’s address or last name.