Samuel Woodward trial begins in death of Blaze Bernstein in Orange County of – NBC Los Angeles

A 26-year-old man who was tied to a white supremacist organization and who reveled in catfishing gay men online then rejecting or threatening them fatally stabbed a former classmate near his home in Foothill Ranch, a prosecutor told jurors today.

The defendant’s attorney, however, admitted his client carried out the killing, but he denied it was the result of neo-Nazi beliefs or hatred of gay men, saying the defendant struggled with long-undiagnosed autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and conflicted sexuality.

Six years after the case was filed, attorneys delivered opening statements Tuesday in the trial of Samuel Lincoln Woodward of Newport Beach, who is charged with the Jan. 3, 2018, killing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein.

The murder charge against Woodward includes sentencing enhancements for a hate crime and the personal use of a deadly weapon. He faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted.

“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.

The victim’s parents, Gideon and Jeanne Bernstein, reported their son missing Jan. 3, 2018. He had last been seen the day before at their home in Foothill Ranch.

The University of Pennsylvania student was home for the holidays and had gone to bed, but later left the home without his parents knowing. His parents figured he was “sleeping in” and left that morning without checking on him, Walker said.

When their son did not respond to text messages or calls by the afternoon about a missed dental appointment, the parents returned home and found his wallet, glasses, credit cards and cash in his bedroom and his car still in the driveway, indicating he did not plan to be gone long, Walker said.

The parents checked his social media accounts and when they saw he had last spoken to Woodward, they contacted him, Walker said. Woodward told them that the last time he saw his former Orange County School of the Arts classmate, he had “walked off into the Borrego Park to meet an unknown friend,” Walker said.

According to Woodward, Bernstein said he had a “surprise” for him and walked off into the woods to get another former classmate to join them, but he never returned, Walker said. Woodward told Bernstein’s parents he was
“concerned” about the victim and wanted to help find him.

Later, Woodward told investigators that he had picked up Bernstein that night so they could “catch up,” Walker said.

A massive search was launched to find Bernstein. His body was found Jan. 9, 2018, in a shallow grave during a search of Borrego Park. The location had been searched before, but rain storms had helped unearth some of the victim’s body, Walker said.

The victim, who was Jewish, was stabbed 28 times, the prosecutor said. The “defensive wounds” on the victim’s hands indicated he “fought for his life,” Walker said.

Woodward was booked on suspicion of the killing Jan. 12, 2018.

During the search for Bernstein, Woodward was “on a search of his own” online as he sought answers to how long DNA can remain on an object and how often surveillance video footage is erased at the library near the crime scene, Walker said.

According to the prosecutor, Woodward had joined American Vanguard, a white supremacist organization, but he found it was “not enough action” and “a bunch of talk.” So he turned to Attomwaffen Division, another white supremacist group inspired by author James Mason’s book “Siege,” Walker said.

The prosecutor showed jurors a photo of Woodward with Mason.

“He started catfishing and researching his prey,” Walker said of Woodward’s activity on social media apps. “The prey the defendant chose was gay people.”

Walker read from entries in the defendant’s diary in which he detailed his disgust with homosexuality and his delight in luring gay men and then “ghosting” them.

She also showed a doodle he did on a napkin in December of 2017 in which he wrote “sex is boring, but murder isn’t.”

The prosecutor also showed jurors an online exchange between Woodward and Bernstein shortly before they reconnected. The two had previously discussed how they had crossed paths on a dating site and Woodward apologized and said he was going through a “weird time in my life” but had “figured things out.”

Woodward said he had struggled with drugs but had overcome the problem, prompting some concern from Bernstein. In the exchange, Woodward reiterated he was straight but that, “I might make an exception for you,” according to Walker.

Some of the evidence in the case will be the victim’s DNA on a folding knife that had the defendant’s father’s name on it, a sleeping bag with Bernstein’s genetic material on it and an Attomwaffen uniform turtleneck which also had the victim’s DNA on it.

However, the defendant’s attorney, Ken Morrison of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, acknowledged that his client killed Bernstein.

“The evidence will show my client, Sam Woodward, was responsible for that death,” Morrison said. `”`”We agree the evidence will show Samuel Woodward is guilty of homicide.”

Morrison added, “There is no legal justification, no legal self-defense.”

But, he noted, “You will hear other evidence that helps explain why this happened. … It was not the hyperbolic, hysteria of neo-Nazi killed a gay Jew.”

Woodward “did not hate Blaze because he was gay,” Morrison said. “Or for any reason. Sam actually thought Blaze was cool, a pretty chill dude and one of the few he liked at his integrated high school.”

Bernstein was “intelligent, had a biting sense of humor and a charismatic charm that Sam admired and respected. … What happened that night was not a hate crime. … Blaze was not killed because of who he was, but because of what he did after they met up … and what Blaze had been doing to Sam over the previous three months.”

An investigator testified during an earlier preliminary hearing that Bernstein tried to kiss Woodward, who pushed him away and used a derogatory term for homosexuals.

Although both defendant and victim were men, they were still dependent on their parents and were still adolescents prone to making poor choices, Morrison told jurors Tuesday.

They both grew up well off and had supportive parents, Morrison said. Woodward attended the Orange County School of the Arts for four years and Bernstein for six years. Woodward earned Eagle Scout status and Bernstein went onto an Ivy League college at the University of Pennsylvania. Woodward took two semesters at Cal State Channel Islands before dropping out.

“And for different reasons both expressed deep-seated resentment toward their parents … which left them alienated and a little more lonely,” Morrison said.

“Both struggled over their sexual identities in different ways and for different reasons,” Morrison said.

Woodward’s long undiagnosed issues with autism left him vulnerable to recruitment by the white supremacist groups that target individuals like the defendant, who sought “acceptance and validation,” Morrison said. Woodward also had an “obsession” with gay men and gay porn sites, Morrison said.

But Woodward grew up in a “very conservative” family that objected to homosexuality, Morrison said.

Woodward also struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder which led to his online activity and a “narrow range of interests” such as history, Morrison said.

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