Accused Blaze Bernstein Killer Denies Hate Crime Allegation

NEWPORT BEACH (CNS) - A 21-year-old Newport Beach man, who's accused of killing a former high school classmate because the victim was gay, today denied a hate crime allegation. 

The sentencing enhancement allegation of being motivated by a hate crime in a first-degree murder was filed Aug. 2, several months after Samuel Lincoln Woodward was charged with killing Blaze Bernstein, who was home from college on winter break when he was slain. 

Adding the allegation means Woodward -- who had previously been facing 26 years to life in prison if convicted -- could now be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty. Woodward's preliminary hearing, which will determine whether there is enough evidence for him to proceed to trial, was rescheduled to Sept. 4 at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach. 

Woodward also faces a sentencing enhancement for allegedly using a knife in the killing of the 19-year-old victim. The University of Pennsylvania pre-med student was picked up by Woodward late on the night of Jan. 2, according to prosecutors. Bernstein was found dead a week later in a shallow grave at Borrego Park, near his family's Lake Forest home. Woodward and Bernstein were classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana and had reconnected through the social media platform Snapchat.``We will prove Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay,'' District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said earlier this month. 

``The evidence was developed by examining Woodward's cell phone, laptop, social media and other digital evidence revealing the dark side of Woodward's thoughts and intentions.''The investigation is ongoing and Rackauckas solicited the public's help linking Woodward to any associations with known hate groups so prosecutors can consider adding hate-crime allegations involving Bernstein's Jewish heritage. 

Woodward's attorney, Ed Munoz, previously said he and his client's family were ``deeply disappointed'' that the complaint was amended to allege the defendant carried out the killing due to Bernstein's sexual orientation.

``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 on Aug. 2. 

``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.''Woodward has been diagnosed with autism, Munoz said. 

Rackauckas declined to comment when asked if there was any evidence Woodward was gay or bisexual. According to the county's top prosecutor, Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents' Lake Forest home about 11 p.m. Jan. 2 and drove him to a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later, the two went to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, he said. 

At some point, Woodward allegedly stabbed Bernstein multiple times, then buried the body in a dirt perimeter at the park. A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register in January suggested Bernstein may have tried to kiss Woodward, who responded by killing him in an act of rage. 

Rackauckas noted in January that state law does not allow prosecutors to attach a special-circumstance allegation to a murder charge in a case when a victim is targeted because they are female or gay. A special-circumstance allegation could lead to a possible death sentence.

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