Gay student stabbed to death was victim of hate crime, says district attorney
A student at the University of Pennsylvania who was murdered in January was the victim of a hate crime, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Blaze Bernstein, 19, was stabbed 20 times by former classmate Samuel Woodward during a return visit to California. Bernstein was visiting his parents while on winter break.
Woodward, the last person to see Bernstein before his death, was arrested on January 12 after DNA evidence linked him to the crime.
The Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckas, said in a press conference on Thursday that a hate crime allegation had been added to the case against Woodward, who already faces 26 years to life in prison. Because of the allegation, the murder suspect could be convicted to life in prison without parole.
Bernstein, a pre-med student at UPenn, was openly gay, and according to a police statement, had tried to kiss Woodward on the night of the murder. According to the statement, Woodward “wanted to tell Blaze to get off him” and pushed him away before heading down to the park.
During a search of Woodward’s laptop, phone and social media, police found hateful material against several groups and information that fed into the suspicion that the attack on Bernstein was motivated by homophobia.
While the district attorney refused to go into more detail about what sort of material was found on Woodward’s computer, he said they were of a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic nature.
“There’s a lot there that just spews hatred towards a lot of different groups of people, basically every protected group,” Rackauckas said. “So it’s hatred of many different groups of people. But the evidence of the motivation for this particular killing is we can show evidence that he killed him at least substantially, because he was gay.”
Bernstein and Woodward had met at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana and reconnected through social media. According to texts conversations between Bernstein and two female friends, the murder victim thought Woodward was romantically interested in him.
“He ‘hit on me’ and ‘made me promise not to tell anyone,’” some of the messages read.
The two men met up in January while Bernstein was visiting his parents on his winter break. Bernstein’s body was found a week later in Anza-Borrego Park in a shallow grave but the exact time and place of the murder is still unknown.
After Bernstein’s body was uncovered, Carrie Braun, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department told the press that “the condition of the body at the time it was discovered turned it from a missing person to a homicide immediately.”
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DNA tests soon linked Woodward, 20, to the crime. Prosecution found that the accused had tried to clean his vehicle in order to get rid of DNA evidence linking him to the crime, and visited the crime scene days after Bernstein death. During his police interview, Woodward acted nervously and had scratches on his hands.
Bernstein’s parents, Gideon and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, said they believed their son had been victim of a hate crime soon after his killer was identified.
“Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” they said in a statement. “We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community.”
“If it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime,” they added.
Woodward is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on August 22.