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State Senate committee rejects sentencing bill inspired by Blaze Bernstein’s slaying

State Senate committee rejects sentencing bill inspired by Blaze Bernstein’s slaying
Blaze Bernstein, 19, was visiting his parents in Lake Forest during winter break from the University of Pennsylvania at the time he was killed. His body was found Jan. 9 at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. (File Photo / AP)

A bill intended to add gender and sexual orientation as considerations in sentencing enhancements in murder convictions was rejected Tuesday by the state Senate's Public Safety Committee.

The proposed change was spurred by the investigation into the slaying of Blaze Bernstein

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The committee voted 4-2 against Senate Bill 971, which proposed adding the death penalty as an option in murder cases in which the victims were killed because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Senators who voted against the bill said they opposed any expansion of the death penalty. Sens. Jeff Stone (R-Indio) and Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon) voted in support.

Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove), who proposed the change, said the need for it was brought to light by the killing of Bernstein, a 19-year-old gay college student from Lake Forest. Nguyen, who represents portions of Orange County including Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, said Tuesday that law enforcement has not ruled out the possibility that Bernstein's sexual orientation was a motivation for the killing.

Nguyen told the committee that the current law creates "an important gap in justice."

"His death cannot be in vain," Nguyen said. "We need to take this opportunity to fix an oversight in our laws."

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) told Nguyen that he appreciated her effort to protect the LGBTQ community from violence but said he wouldn't support expanding the death penalty in any way.

"I don't support the death penalty," he said. "I don't think the death penalty is effective. I think it's been a scar on our society."

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas asked Nguyen to spearhead the proposed change in January after researching potential charges against Samuel Woodward of Newport Beach, who is facing a murder charge in connection with Bernstein's death.

Samuel Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, who is charged with murder in Blaze Bernstein’s slaying, is pictured at a hearing in Orange County Superior Court in January.
Samuel Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, who is charged with murder in Blaze Bernstein’s slaying, is pictured at a hearing in Orange County Superior Court in January. (File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Woodward, 20, has pleaded not guilty.

If convicted of the murder charge, he could face a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison. He has not been charged with a hate crime, which would carry a minimum penalty of life in prison.

Prosecutors have not discussed a possible motive in the case, and the district attorney's office has not addressed whether any evidence in the investigation could point to a special-circumstance allegation like the one outlined in the proposed legislation.

Prosecutors allege Woodward stabbed Bernstein in early January and buried him in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. Bernstein's body was found Jan. 9 with more than 20 stab wounds.

According to a 16-page affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that Bernstein kissed him on the lips while they were sitting in a parked car Jan. 2.

According to the affidavit, Woodward told authorities that the kiss was unwanted and that he pushed Bernstein away, adding that he wanted to call him a "faggot."

According to a report published in January by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, three people who knew Woodward said he was part of Atomwaffen Division, an armed fascist organization that aims to overthrow the U.S. government through guerrilla tactics and terrorism.

Woodward is being held in Orange County Jail in Santa Ana with bail set at $5 million. He is expected in court for a preliminary hearing in June.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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