Former classmate found guilty in murder of gay teen Blaze Bernstein

Samuel Woodward testifies in Orange County Superior Court, on June 13, 2024, in Santa Ana, Calif. (Orange County Register via MediaNews Group via Getty Images, FILE)

(NEW YORK) – -Samuel Woodward, a California man accused of murdering his former classmate in 2018, has been found guilty in the hate crime case.

Blaze Bernstein — a 19-year-old gay, Jewish student at the University of Pennsylvania — went missing while visiting his family in Newport Beach during winter break in January 2018. His body was found following a dayslong search buried in a park in Lake Forest he went to with Woodward the night he went missing, authorities said. He had been stabbed 28 times, prosecutors said.

Woodward, now 26, was charged with first-degree murder with a hate crime enhancement. Prosecutors had alleged that Woodward murdered his high school classmate because Bernstein was gay.

Woodward had pleaded not guilty.

The jury reached its verdict Wednesday afternoon following a nearly three-month-long trial in Orange County.

Some applause broke out from the gallery upon hearing that Woodward was convicted on the hate crime enhancement, prompting Judge Kimberly Menninger to ask people to “settle down.”

“I understand that it’s emotional, but I just can’t have that,” she said.

Sentencing has been scheduled for Oct. 25. He faces life without the possibility of parole.

Bernstein’s family said in a statement that the verdict “brings a measure of closure” six-and-a-half years after the teen’s murder, but that it “cannot erase the pain of losing our son and the agony of waiting all of these years without resolution.”

“No verdict can bring back Blaze. He was an amazing human and humanitarian and a person we were greatly looking forward to having in our lives, seeing wondrous things from him as his young life unfolded,” the family said in a statement read by a representative at a press briefing following the verdict. “From this funny, articulate, kind, intelligent, caring and brilliant scientist, artist, writer, chef and son, there will never be anyone quite like him. His gifts will never be realized or shared now.”

Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker, who prosecuted the case, said she was grateful for the verdict.

“I’m just so happy for the Bernsteins because it has been a very painful process,” she said at the press briefing.

Defense attorney Ken Morrison told jurors during closing arguments that Woodward is guilty of homicide, though said the act was not a hate crime but a spontaneous, irrational one.

“You heard me right out of the gate tell you that my client was guilty,” Morrison said. “Guilty of a serious, violent homicide. But as you also know, there are many different kinds of homicide.”

Woodward testified during the trial that on the night of the murder, he went into a state of terror after thinking Bernstein may have been recording him while touching him sexually at the park, then pulled out a knife, ABC Los Angeles station KABC-TV reported.

Walker told jurors during closing arguments that Woodward’s hatred of gay people and his affiliation with Atomwaffen Division — a far-right, neo-Nazi group — led him to plan the murder.

“He already had his bags, he was already talking to Atomwaffen people about going somewhere else, and he thought he was going to get away with it,” she said. “It’s only by the grace of God that rain happened, and they found his body.”

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