Samuel Woodward convicted in stabbing death of gay ex-classmate

SANTA ANA CA, JULY 3, 2024 - Samuel Woodward, right, talks to Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison, after a jury convicted Woodward first-degree murder for the stabbing death of his former classmate, Blaze Bernstein, on Wednesday, July 3, 2024, at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana. Jurors also determined that the murder was a hate crime, which opens the door for a longer prison sentence. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Samuel Woodward, right, talks to Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison, after a jury convicted Woodward first-degree murder for the stabbing death of his former classmate, Blaze Bernstein. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Samuel Woodward was motivated by hate and intent on murder when he stabbed a gay former schoolmate 28 times in a dark park in 2018, an Orange County jury concluded Wednesday.

The jury deliberated for about a day before finding Woodward, 26, guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student.

The jury rejected the defense's claim that Woodward committed the stabbing only because Bernstein provoked him.

"We are thrilled with the verdict, which holds Samuel Woodward accountable," Bernstein's mother, Jeanne Pepper, said at a news conference. "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."

The jury also convicted Woodward of a hate-crime enhancement, which applied only to Bernstein's sexual orientation, though he was both Jewish and gay.

Woodward's computer teemed with anti-gay and anti-Jewish propaganda from the Atomwaffen Division, an extremist group, and he kept a "hate diary" in which he boasted of pranking and scaring gay men.

Woodward faces a sentence of life without the possibility of parole when Judge Kimberly Menninger sentences him on Oct. 25.

It is technically within the judge's discretion to depart from that sentence, but it is "politically impossible," said Woodward's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison.

"It will not happen in this case, with this judge, especially with the prosecution and media narrative over the last six years," Morrison said.

Morrison has criticized that narrative as "Nazi kills gay Jew," and he spent much of the three-month trial trying to dismantle it, with limited success. He said Woodward would appeal, adding there was "a very strong record of appellate issues" involving evidence the jury wasn't allowed to see. He did not elaborate on that evidence.

Both sides portrayed Woodward as a young man who struggled with his sexuality growing up in a conservative Newport Beach family, with a particularly disapproving father.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Walker told the jury that when Woodward decided to kill Bernstein in January 2018, he chose a weapon with symbolic significance: a knife with his father's name etched on it.

"Who better to prove to that you're not gay than this homophobic father?" Walker said during closing arguments. "'I'm not gay, look what I just did.'"

Morrison acknowledged that his client was guilty of killing Bernstein, which he called a "hideous crime," but said it was voluntary manslaughter, not murder.

"There's no premeditation or deliberation," he told jurors, arguing that the killing had no connection to his client's interest in the Atomwaffen Division.

On the night of the killing, Bernstein and Woodward exchanged flirtatious text messages. They had known each other casually years earlier at the Orange County School of the Arts, where Woodward had a reputation based on his far-right, anti-gay views.

Woodward had dropped out of college and was living with his parents. Bernstein, an out gay student, was staying with his parents over winter break in Lake Forest.

Woodward suggested he was bi-curious. Bernstein texted his address. Woodward picked him up, and they went to a nearby park.

"Unfortunately for Blaze, curiosity killed him," Walker said.

Read more: As trial begins, O.C. prosecutors will try to prove Blaze Bernstein's killing was a hate crime

Taking the stand in his own defense, Woodward seemed nearly catatonic, his words halting and slow, his eyes cast downward, his face covered by a curtain of unkempt hair. His attorney had to keep reminding him to look up.

Woodward testified that he took two puffs on a strong marijuana joint, went into a haze and came out of it to find Bernstein touching his genitals.

By Woodward's account, Bernstein told him he had been outed, called him a hypocrite and said something like, "I got you." Woodward said he feared that Bernstein had taken a photo of his genitals and was texting it to someone.

Asked for details about the stabbing, Woodward repeatedly said he couldn't remember.

Bernstein's blood was found on the knife bearing Woodward's father's name, leading prosecutors to conclude it was the murder weapon. But Woodward insisted he had used a different knife.

No evidence surfaced that Bernstein took explicit photos of Woodward, and Walker, the prosecutor, called the defendant's account "ridiculous" and "revisionist history."

Deriding the notion that Woodward flew into a rage for fear of being outed, she said he had posted his own photo on a Tinder profile saying he was seeking other men and had sent out photos of his penis more than once.

She said that "taking a weapon with your dad's name is very symbolic," particularly since Woodward, an Eagle Scout, had multiple knives. The prosecutor said that by killing Bernstein, Woodward was hoping to raise his profile with the Atomwaffen Division.

"It will prove to Atomwaffen he's not gay," Walker said. "It will prove to his dad he's not gay. It will prove to himself he's not gay."

When police searched Woodward's belongings, they found a death's-head mask — an emblem of the Atomwaffen — spattered with Bernstein's blood, indicating Woodward had it with him during the stabbing.

"Why are you bringing a skull mask?" Walker said. "This is a ceremonial killing for him that is going to get him prestige and admiration, which it did. We heard Atomwaffen was proud of him for this."

Woodward buried Bernstein in a shallow grave in the park, and, to divert investigators, sent texts to Bernstein's phone asking where he was. Woodward's initial account to police was that he had accompanied Bernstein to the park but that Bernstein had inexplicably wandered off.

After a weeklong search, Bernstein's body was found when the rain washed away dirt concealing his body. No shovel was found. Dirt was discovered under Woodward's fingernails, however, and he had dug the makeshift grave with his hands, according to Morrison — an argument that it was not a premeditated crime.

Morrison portrayed his client as a socially awkward young man who suffered for years with undiagnosed autism.

He said there was no evidence that Woodward had actually pranked and terrorized gay men beyond the account in his "hate diary," which Morrison characterized as empty boasting.

Morrison denied that Bernstein's fatal stabbing was "a hate-fueled crime inspired by the likes of Hitler and [Charles] Manson."

He attributed his client's attachment to the Atomwaffen Division to "his lifelong struggle to fit in, to make and maintain meaningful friendships," which left him vulnerable to a group that offered fellowship and preyed on people like him. He said his client had a "starvation for human connection."

The Santa Ana courtroom was packed Wednesday afternoon. After the jury filed in, the verdict form was passed to the judge and then to court clerk Anthony Villa, an 18-year courthouse veteran who has read more than 100 verdicts aloud without betraying emotion.

This time, his voice broke as he said "guilty," and he struggled for a moment to continue.

The emotion was echoed among Bernstein's friends and family as they sat together. "Thank God," someone sobbed.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.