The man accused of fatally stabbing 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein allegedly killed the teen because he was gay, Orange County prosecutors said Thursday as they announced a “hate crime murder” sentencing enhancement against the defendant.
The enhancement was in an amended criminal complaint against the defendant, 21-year-old Samuel Woodward, who was a former classmate of Bernstein at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana.
Additional analysis of Woodward’s laptop, cellphone and social media posts revealed images that authorities described as “graphic and chilling,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said.
The images were “racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and anti-governmental,” the DA said.
The evidence investigators uncovered “revealed the dark side of his thoughts and intentions,” Rackauckus told reporters during a news conference.
He added that the evidence proves the defendant was “substantially motivated because Blaze was gay.”
The new allegations come more than six months after Woodward was charged with murder in the killing of Bernstein, whose body was found in a shallow grave in Borrego Park on Jan. 10, authorities said. He was reported missing a week earlier.
The hate crime sentencing enhancement increases Woodward’s potential maximum sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to a news release from DA’s office. He had previously faced a maximum of 26 years to life.
Bernstein was killed while on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a pre-med student. He was visiting his family in Lake Forest.
The teen was stabbed more than 20 times, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing a law enforcement force.
“There is no room for this kind of hate in our society,” Rackauckas said.
The DA’s office has been thorough to ensure that Woodward is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, according to state Sen. Janet Nguyen, who represents parts of Orange County. She believes the sentencing enhancement will send a strong message to people who commit hate crimes.
“The update is a significant step forward in the quest to bring justice to Blaze and his family,” Nguyen said.
Bernstein’s parents, who also spoke at the news conference, expressed their grief.
“Today we suffer an added layer of pain from learning that he was simply killed for who he was as a human being,” said Bernstein’s father, Gideon Bernstein.
But the parents said they were relieved to hear Woodward could face a stiffer penalty.
“The objective is to make sure that maximum sentencing is an option to ensure that no one is ever hurt or killed again by hate,” Gideon Bernstein said.
The victim’s mother, Jeanne Bernstein, described herself and her husband as people “suffering because of hate.”
She told the public that they will continue to walk in solidarity with other survivors of hate crimes.
“We continue to look toward the future and what we can do to make a difference,” she said. “We continue to blaze it forward for Blaze and for you … one intentional act of kindness at a time.”