SANTA ANA, Calif. – A Southern California man charged with the murder of a University of Pennsylvania student carried out the killing because the victim was gay, prosecutors said Thursday.
A hate crime sentencing enhancement was being added to a murder charge against 21-year-old Samuel Woodward in the death of 19-year-old sophomore Blaze Bernstein, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said.
Since Bernstein’s body was found in January at a park near his parents’ Lake Forest, California, home, investigators reviewed Woodward’s cellphone, laptop and social media and found hateful materials against a range of groups and substantial evidence Bernstein was killed because he was gay, Rackauckas said.
“We have no room for this kind of hate in our society,” Rackauckas told reporters.
Woodward, who is from the upscale seaside city of Newport Beach, has pleaded not guilty to the killing. He is being held on $5 million bail and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 22.
With the change, Woodward faces a maximum potential sentence of life without parole. He previously faced a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in prison if he were convicted.
A message was left for Woodward’s attorney.
Bernstein went missing in January while visiting his parents in the tight-knit Lake Forest community of Foothill Ranch, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. His body was found in the park nearly a week later buried in a shallow grave.
Bernstein went to the park with Woodward the night he disappeared, authorities said. The two had attended the same high school in Orange County.
Authorities had long said they were investigating the case as a possible hate crime. Bernstein was Jewish and gay.
Rackauckas declined to specify what materials were found in Woodward’s accounts, but he said they were racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic. He urged anyone with information showing Woodward had ties to hate groups to contact authorities. “There could be other charges filed as evidence develops,” he said.
“There’s a lot there that just spews hatred towards a lot of different groups of people, basically every protected group,” Rackauckas said. “So it’s hatred of many different groups of people. But the evidence of the motivation for this particular killing is we can show evidence that he killed him at least substantially because he was gay.”
When asked about an earlier media report allegedly linking Woodward to a neo-Nazi group, Rackauckas said he could not discuss it.
Under California law, prosecutors can seek the death penalty when a victim is killed because of race, religion or nationality, but not sexual orientation. Since Bernstein’s death, a state bill has been proposed to change that.
Earlier this year, hundreds attended a vigil and memorial for Bernstein, who was studying psychology and had been chosen to edit a campus culinary magazine.
His parents have urged people to do acts of kindness to remember their son. On Thursday, his father, Gideon Bernstein, said learning his son was killed simply for who he was brought the family more pain.
“Our only objective at this point is to make sure that maximum sentence is an option to ensure that no one is ever hurt or killed again by hate,” he said.