A Newport Beach man charged in the stabbing death of his former high school classmate denied a sentencing enhancement allegation of a hate crime during a brief appearance Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court.
The allegation was added to the murder charge this month, with Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas saying prosecutors believe Samuel Woodward killed Blaze Bernstein, 19, because he was gay.
With the possible sentencing enhancement, Woodward, 21, could face life in prison without parole if convicted. He previously pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and is being held in Orange County Jail with bail set at $5 million.
Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, Woodward was largely quiet during his court appearance Wednesday. The proceeding was scheduled as a preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to move to trial, but that matter was rescheduled for Sept. 4 at the request of the attorneys.
Prosecutors allege Woodward stabbed Bernstein and buried him in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. His body was found Jan. 9 with more than 20 stab wounds.
According to an affidavit, Woodward told investigators that Bernstein kissed him while they were sitting in a parked car Jan. 2. Woodward told authorities the kiss was unwanted and that he pushed Bernstein away.
Authorities said DNA evidence found at Borrego Park and in Woodward’s car led to his arrest.
After Wednesday’s court appearance, Woodward’s attorney, Edward Munoz, said his client has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that can hinder a person’s ability to socialize or communicate.
Munoz said that “there’s going to be some evidence that comes out to say he’s very confused” about both his sexual identity and “his own identity.”
Bernstein had been visiting his parents in Lake Forest during winter break when his family reported him missing. He was enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania. He and Woodward both had attended the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, authorities said.