Californian convicted of murdering gay University of Pennsylvania student in 2018

By JAIMIE DING and AMY TAXIN – Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A California man was found guilty Wednesday of murder with an additional hate crime aggravation in the 2018 stabbing death of a gay University of Pennsylvania student.

Samuel Woodward, 26, was found guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated murder in the killing of Blaze Bernstein, a gay Jewish college sophomore who was home visiting his family in Southern California for winter break when he disappeared. Authorities searched the area for him and found his body a week later in a shallow grave in a nearby park.

The question during the months-long trial was not whether Woodward killed Bernstein, but why and under what circumstances. During closing arguments, prosecutor Jennifer Walker emphasized Woodward’s affiliation with a violent, homophobic, neo-Nazi extremist group called the Atomwaffen Division.

“This is a person focused on hate,” Walker said. “He’s not following nuclear weapons, he’s not being guided by them, he’s not influencing them, he’s not being victimized by them – he’s looking for them.”

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Because of the aggravated hate crime, Woodward could face a life sentence without parole.

Ken Morrison, Woodward’s lawyer, tried to prove in court that his client had neither intended to kill Bernstein nor hated anyone, hoping to gain a lesser murder or manslaughter conviction.

Morrison, who plans to appeal after the verdict, said the judge made some crucial decisions that “deprived the jury of the opportunity to consider evidence critical to a fair trial.”

Bernstein’s family said in a statement that no verdict could “ease the pain of losing our son and the agony of waiting for years without resolution,” ABC News reported.

“He was an amazing human being and humanitarian and we were so excited to have him in our lives and see wonderful things from him in his young life,” the family said. “There will never be anyone else like this funny, articulate, kind, intelligent, caring and brilliant scientist, artist, writer, chef and son.”

Woodward and Bernstein previously attended the same Orange County high school and had connected on a dating app in the months before the attack, according to court testimony. Woodward said he picked up Bernstein and went to a nearby park. He repeatedly stabbed Bernstein after trying to grab a cellphone that he said had been used to photograph him.

Prosecutors said Woodward joined the Atomwaffen Division and repeatedly targeted gay men online, contacting them and then abruptly cutting off contact while keeping a hate-filled, profanity-laced diary of his actions. They said Woodward had shown an interest in violent acts in the weeks before the murder and had contacted Bernstein online.

“Hate will never be tolerated here in Orange County – and rather than being a symbol revered by other haters, he is a symbol that society will never tolerate those who terrorize the most vulnerable members of our society,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement Wednesday.

Morrison, the defense attorney, told jurors that Woodward faced challenges in his personal relationships due to a long-undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and was uncertain about his sexuality after growing up in a politically conservative and devoutly Catholic family in which his father openly criticized homosexuality.

It took years for the case to go to trial after doubts arose about Woodward’s mental state and defense attorneys changed several times. At the end of 2022, Woodward was declared competent to stand trial.

Bernstein, then 19, disappeared in January 2018 after walking with Woodward at night to a park in Lake Forest, about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles. After Bernstein missed a dentist appointment the next day, his parents found his glasses, wallet and credit cards in his bedroom and tried to contact him, but he did not respond to texts or calls.

Authorities launched an extensive search and said Bernstein’s family searched his social media and found he had been communicating with Woodward through Snapchat. Authorities said Woodward told the family Bernstein had left that evening to meet a friend at the park and had not returned.

Days later, Bernstein’s body was found in the shallow grave. He had been stabbed multiple times in the face and neck.

Authorities said they searched Woodward’s family home in Newport Beach and found a folding knife with a bloody blade in his room. They also found a black nuclear weapon mask with traces of blood and a variety of homophobic, anti-Semitic and hateful material, prosecutors said.

Ding reported from Los Angeles.

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