A California man has been found guilty of committing a hate crime murder in the death of his former classmate Blaze Bernstein, who was gay

An Orange County man was found guilty on Wednesday of first-degree murder and a hate crime in the fatal stabbing of a gay former high school classmate in 2018.

Samuel Woodward, 26, was convicted by jurors for the stabbing death of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Bernstein had sustained multiple stab wounds to the face and neck.

Audible cheers were heard in the courtroom upon the announcement of the hate crime conviction. The judge called for quiet before the clerk continued to read the jury’s verdict.

Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, expressed relief outside the Santa Ana courtroom following Woodward’s conviction. She thanked supporters and indicated that the family would need time to process the trial’s outcome.

“We are greatly relieved that justice has been served and that this despicable individual who murdered our son will no longer pose a threat to the public,” she said. She added that the family could now move forward knowing that Woodward would not harm others.

Woodward displayed no visible reaction when the verdict was delivered. He sat facing forward with his face obscured by his long hair.

The jury deliberated for one day before reaching a verdict. Woodward is scheduled to be sentenced on October 25 and faces a potential life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The hate crime enhancement alleged that Woodward targeted Bernstein due to his sexual orientation, rather than his Jewish faith. Evidence presented to the jury included Woodward’s association with a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division, suggesting a pattern of prejudice.

Woodward and Bernstein had attended the Orange County School of the Arts together for four years. Bernstein graduated after six years at the school and was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Woodward had targeted gay men online and abruptly cut off communication with them. Woodward admitted in court that he had matched with Bernstein on a dating app and met up with him during Bernstein’s winter break from university.

Woodward testified that while he and Bernstein were lying together in the park, Bernstein made sexual advances toward him. Woodward said he felt extreme fear when he saw the light on Bernstein’s cell phone, believing Bernstein was recording or sharing photos of him. Woodward testified that he then stabbed Bernstein out of anger and fear.

Woodward stated that he dug a shallow grave with his hands and left Bernstein’s body in the park.

The day after Bernstein missed a dentist appointment and could not be reached, his parents began searching for him and contacted authorities.

Bernstein’s remains were discovered on January 9, 2018, after the area had been previously searched, but rain revealed his body, according to prosecutors.

During the trial, Woodward testified over five days, often taking considerable time to answer yes-or-no questions.

Woodward’s defense attorney, Ken Morrison of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, asserted that Woodward did not harbor hatred toward Bernstein and did not plan to kill him when they met. Instead, Woodward’s actions were described as stemming from internal conflict over his own sexuality, leading to a burst of anger. Morrison informed reporters after the verdict that he had established strong grounds for appeal, including issues related to jurors’ access to critical evidence.

The defense also argued that Woodward’s undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder made him susceptible to recruitment by white supremacist groups seeking acceptance and validation. Woodward’s defense team highlighted his fixation on gay men and gay porn sites.

The trial included testimony from numerous witnesses, including relatives, friends, and law enforcement.

The defense portrayed Woodward as a young man grappling with autism, which contributed to social difficulties and loneliness. He initially joined the extremist Atomwaffen Division for a sense of belonging but later became disillusioned with the group.

Morrison emphasized that Woodward admired Bernstein’s comfort with his sexual orientation, describing Bernstein as someone Woodward aspired to be like.

“Blaze Bernstein was intimidating in many ways because he possessed qualities that Sam thought he lacked,” Morrison stated. “Sam was questioning these things and looking for strong male figures.”

According to prosecutors, Bernstein’s parents searched their son’s social media for clues and contacted Woodward, who allegedly lied about what happened. Woodward also reportedly researched DNA and altered his appearance by cutting his hair.

“The evidence against Woodward is substantial,” remarked Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker, noting Bernstein’s inability to defend himself against the accusations.

“Blaze Bernstein kept his promise not to share the details of their conversations with others,” Walker added.

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