Samuel Woodward, who was a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, will face a hate-crime enhancement to a murder charge because of allegations that he killed Blaze Bernstein because the victim was gay, Orange County, Calif., District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Thursday. Bernstein, 19, was also Jewish.
The 21-year-old Woodward, who was charged with stabbing his former high school classmate more than 20 times, would face a maximum sentence of life without parole if convicted, as compared to a 26 years to life maximum without the hate-crime enhancement, prosecutors told the Los Angeles Times.
“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, referencing the fact that Orange County authorities found a large number of texts and images expressing homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic, and antigovernment ideology. “All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”
Bernstein, who was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania, reconnected with his Orange County School of the Arts classmates through Snapchat. Woodward, of Newport Beach, Calif., picked up the gay teen from his parents' house in the nearby town of Lake Forest when Bernstein was home for winter break last January. Then the two went to Borrego Park in Lake Forest. A search warrant obtained by The Orange County Register suggests that Bernstein may have leaned in for a kiss.
Text messages from June 2017, however, indicate Woodward may have pursued Bernstein. The messages show Bernstein telling friends that Woodward "hit on me" and "he made me promise not to tell anyone … but I have texted every one, uh oh."
Bernstein was found buried in a shallow grave at a park near his parents' home in January. Prosecutors did not immediately deem his murder a hate crime.
After Woodward pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, ProPublica obtained 250,000 messages sent on the chat service Discord celebrating Berstein's murder, many of which were from members of Woodward's neo-Nazi group.
Bernstein's father, Gideon Bernstein, said at a news conference Thursday that “we suffer an added layer of pain from learning he was likely killed because of who he was,” MyNewsLA reports.
"We live in a world where hate is real and the people that practice it can be hiding in your home in your child's computer," said the victim's mother, Jeanne Bernstein. "We continue to Blazitforward for Blaze and for you and continuing his legacy of improving the human condition; one intentional act of kindness at a time."
"If we all started doing something about hate and about intolerance — we could change the world in a good way to prevent this type of heartache and injustice from happening again,: she added in a statement shared after the press conference, according to the Newport Beach Independent. She further expressed gratitude to the Orange County district attorney and sheriff's department.
State Sen. Janet Nguyen, who also attended the press conference, said, "Many of us only came to know Blaze because of the senseless way his life was taken, but I think it is important that we focus on the contributions that he made during his life and the legacy he leaves behind."
Woodward's attorney, Ed Munoz, said he was “disappointed” by the hate-crime enhancement, MyNewsLA reports. “This is a complex case and the motivations each of the principals brought with them to that fateful meeting are multilayered and they’re really complicated, so I guess from the narrow or selective view of the evidence this amended filing is not completely shocking,” Munoz said. “However, from a more expansive view of the evidence this is a bit surprising. I and my client and of course his family are deeply disappointed with this development because we are aware of the different levels of complexity with each of these individuals.”