Blaze Bernstein — Photo: Instagram
Samuel Woodward, the 21-year-old accused of stabbing an openly gay former high school classmate to death earlier this year, will stand trial for murder.
Woodward has been charged with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing Blaze Bernstein more than 20 times in the face and neck and disposing of his body in a shallow grave in a park in Lake Forest, Calif. in January.
He was also charged with hate crime enhancements, which could carry a stiffer penalty if convicted, for allegedly targeting his victim due to his sexual orientation.
He has since pled not guilty to the charges against him, reports The Associated Press.
While the motive for the killing remains unclear, prosecutors presented evidence during a preliminary hearing that Woodward appeared to have planned to pose as “gay curious” in order to attract gay men, only to later reveal his actions to be a prank.
“That’s what they deserve,” Woodward reportedly wrote, using an anti-gay slur.
Prosecutors claimed during the preliminary hearing that there was sufficient evidence to believe that Woodward could be tried for Bernstein’s murder.
Investigator Dylan Jantzen testified that Woodward said he wanted to curse at Bernstein and call the victim a slur for homosexual men.
Prosecutors also pointed to evidence showing that Woodward had hundreds of anti-gay, homophobic and neo-Nazi memes, photos and texts on his phone, and that he had associated with the violent neo-Nazi hate group Atomwaffen, regularly chatting online with members and even traveling to Texas to meet with some of them.
ProPublica previously reported on Woodward’s ties to the group and posted a photo of Woodward making a Nazi salute.
In addition to the email mentioning Woodward’s intention to “prank” gay men, he allegedly also wrote that he terrified gay men on the gay dating app Grindr by showing them photos of other gay men being killed. He said that one person replied that he was going to call the FBI.
Jantzen also testified that, two weeks prior to the slaying, next to an illustration of a bloody knife, Woodward wrote on Snapchat: “Texting is boring, but murder isn’t.”
It’s unclear how long Woodward’s alleged fake seduction of Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania student who was also Jewish, had been going on.
Prosecutors provided evidence showing that, six months prior to his death, Bernstein had texted a friend a photo of Woodward saying the two had run into each other and believed that they were going to hook up.
According to prosecutors, Bernstein and Woodward connected via Snapchat and agreed to meet, with Woodward picking Bernstein up at his house before the two drove to a nearby park.
Bernstein went missing the next day, and, after a week, his body was found in a shallow grave. Police then questioned Woodward and searched his house and car, finding blood stains that matched Bernstein’s DNA in his bedroom, under his watch, and on the visor of his car.
When he was first arrested, Woodward told investigators that Bernstein kissed him on the lips in his SUV, and he pushed him away, but said he didn’t do anything violent towards Bernstein.
Woodward’s attorney, Edward Muñoz, didn’t present any witnesses at the preliminary hearing, but showed, upon cross-examination, that Woodward revealed to police that he had a form of autism and was socially awkward and confused about his own sexuality.
Muñoz previously indicated he intended to raise these issues as part of his client’s defense.
Muñoz also argues that there was no evidence of a hate crime because the controversial writings on Woodward’s phone were not shared with others, but in emails sent to himself.
If convicted on all charges, Woodward could potentially be sentenced to life in prison without parole.