Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 21, was ordered to stand trial in Orange County Superior Court Tuesday, Sept 4, on murder and hate crime charges. OC County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ prosecutorial team linked Woodward to the fatal stabbing of his former high school classmate, Blaze Bernstein. He has pleaded not guilty.
Woodward stabbed Bernstein nearly 20 times in the face and neck after the two met at a park last January, prosecutors said. The two had connected earlier in the evening on Snapchat, after which Woodward picked up Bernstein at his home.
Bernstein’s murder made national headlines after his body was discovered in a shallow grave in a park in Lake Forest near his home 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 Associated Press reported that about six months before his death which prosecutors have now categorized as a hate crime, Bernstein graphically discussed hopes to have sex with the man charged in his killing, an investigator told the court during Tuesday’s preliminary hearing.
Bernstein had texted a friend a photo of Woodward and said “the two had run into each other and he thought they were going to hook up,” saying sex with the former schoolmate would be “legendary.”
What led to that encounter was not clear during the hearing on the murder and hate crime charges, but Orange County Sheriff’s Investigator Craig Goldsmith said among the anti-gay and hateful material found on his phone was mention of his efforts to pose as “gay curious” to attract men and then reveal it as a prank.
“That’s what they deserve,” Woodward wrote, using an anti-gay slur.
At the close of Tuesday’s preliminary hearing, Superior Court Judge Karen L. Robinson found there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
Testimony during the day-long hearing provided new details about the evidence investigators allege ties Woodward to Bernstein’s death. In addition to the DNA evidence, prosecutors presented the court with evidence that he had troves of homophobic and neo-Nazi material on his mobile phone. Prosecutors say this illustrates his suspected homophobia, as well as his ties to Atomwaffen Division, an armed fascist organization.
Woodward’s defense lawyer, Edward Munoz, didn’t present any witnesses, but on cross-examination it was revealed by his client that he was autistic and was socially awkward and sexually confused.
Munoz argued there was no evidence of a hate crime because reprehensible writings found on Woodward’s phone were not shared with others, but in emails to himself.
“I think in a hate crime instance you have to have an outward manifestation of your loathing to the world,” Munoz said after the hearing.
If convicted of first-degree murder and the hate crime allegation, prosecutors could seek a sentence of up to life in prison without parole.
Reporting by The Associated Press, The Orange County Register, the staff of the Los Angeles Blade, and wire service reports.