Orange County Man Convicted of First-Degree Murder in Stabbing Death of Gay Classmate

An Orange County man was convicted of first-degree murder on Wednesday for the 2018 stabbing death of a gay former high school classmate. Jurors also determined that Samuel Woodward committed a hate crime when he killed 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Lake Forest, with multiple stab wounds to his face and neck, according to NBC.

The courtroom erupted in audible cheers when the hate crime decision was announced, prompting the judge to call for silence before the clerk continued reading the jury’s verdict.

“This is a great relief that justice is served, and this despicable human who murdered our son will no longer be a threat to the public,” said Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, Blaze Bernstein’s mother, at a news conference following the verdict.

Woodward showed no visible reaction, sitting with his face obscured by long hair. The verdict came after just one day of jury deliberations.

Prosecutors argued that Woodward, who had joined an anti-gay and anti-Semitic group, targeted gay men online before abruptly cutting off communication. The murder charge included sentencing enhancements for a hate crime and the personal use of a deadly weapon. Woodward faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, with a sentencing date yet to be scheduled.

“The defendant on Jan. 2 or in the early morning hours of Jan. 3, killed Blaze Bernstein because he was gay,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker told jurors. report from ABC7.

Woodward’s defense attorney contended that Woodward did not hate Bernstein or plan to kill him, but was conflicted by his own sexuality and acted in a fit of rage. The defense also argued that Woodward’s undiagnosed autism made him vulnerable to recruitment by white supremacist groups and that he had an obsession with gay men and gay porn sites.

During the trial, Woodward admitted to matching with Bernstein on a dating app and meeting up while Bernstein was home during his winter break from the University of Pennsylvania. Woodward testified that while they were lying in the park together, Bernstein began to touch him sexually. He claimed he was in “mortal terror” after seeing the light on Bernstein’s cell phone, fearing that Bernstein was recording and sending photos to others.

Woodward testified that he then stabbed Bernstein, experiencing an unprecedented level of anger.

The trial included testimonies from numerous witnesses, including relatives, friends, and authorities. Woodward’s own testimony progressed slowly, with long pauses before answering his attorney’s questions.