OC man convicted of hate crime killing of Blaze Bernstein – NBC Los Angeles

An Orange County man was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder in connection with the 2018 stabbing death of a gay former high school classmate.

Jurors also found that Samuel Woodward committed a hate crime when he shot and killed 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in Lake Forest. The victim had been stabbed repeatedly in the face and neck.

There was an audible cheer in the courtroom as the hate crime verdict was announced. The judge called for silence before the clerk continued reading the jury’s verdict.

“It is a great relief that justice has been served and that this despicable person who murdered our son is no longer a threat to society,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, Blaze Bernstein’s mother, said at a news conference after the verdict was read.

There was no evidence of any visible reaction from Woodward. He sat facing forward, his face obscured by his long hair.

The verdict was reached after a day of deliberation.

Prosecutors alleged during the trial that Woodward, who had joined an anti-gay and anti-Semitic group, targeted and contacted gay men online but then abruptly cut off communication.

Woodward’s charges included aggravated charges of a hate crime and personal use of a deadly weapon. He faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

No date has yet been set for the verdict.

“The defendant killed Blaze Bernstein on January 2 or in the early morning hours of January 3 because he was homosexual,” Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker told the jury.

However, Woodward’s attorney said that Woodward did not hate Bernstein and did not intend to kill him when the two met. Instead, he said that Woodward was struggling with his own sexuality and that he acted out of anger.

The defense also argued that Woodward’s long-undiagnosed autism issues made him vulnerable to recruitment by white supremacist groups that target individuals like the defendant, who are seeking “acceptance and validation.” Woodward also had an “obsession” with gay men and gay pornography sites, his defense attorney said.

Closing arguments in Blaze Bernstein's murder trial in Orange County

Woodward admitted during the trial that he had matched with Bernstein on a dating app. The two met while Bernstein was home during his winter break, while he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania.

Woodward testified that Bernstein began touching him sexually while he and he were lying together in the park.

He said he was in “mortal fear” after seeing the light on Bernstein’s cell phone. He feared Bernstein was taking pictures and sending them to others.

Woodward subsequently testified that he had stabbed Bernstein and that it left him feeling a rage like he had never felt in his life.

The trial included numerous witnesses, including family members, friends and authorities. Woodward’s testimony was slow, with long pauses before answering his attorney’s questions.

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