Suspect in Blaze Bernstein killing pleads not guilty; judge sets bail at $5 million
Samuel Woodward, who is charged with the killing of his former high school classmate, pleaded not guilty Friday in connection with the fatal stabbing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, but questions remain over whether the defendant should be charged with a hate crime.
Woodward, 20, entered his plea during an arraignment hearing in Orange County Superior Court. Judge Sheila Hanson set his bail at $5 million, higher than the typical $1 million in such cases, citing the severity of the crime and that Woodward changed his appearance by dyeing his hair from blonde to black while police were still investigating the case.
In the event Woodward is able to make bail, Hanson ruled that he would be required to remain in California, turn over his U.S. passport, follow a daily 10:30 p.m.- 5 a.m. curfew and agree to be monitored by GPS.
Woodward, a former classmate of Bernstein’s at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, was arrested Jan. 12 on suspicion of murder after DNA evidence at the crime scene in Borrego Park in Lake Forest and inside his car tied him to the slaying, police said.
Authorities have not revealed a motive for the killing. But a source, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because he or she was not authorized to discuss the case publicly, said Woodward claimed that Bernstein had kissed him.
Bernstein, who was gay and was home visiting his parents on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, was found with more than 20 stab wounds.
If convicted of the murder charge, Woodward could face a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison. He has also been charged with one felony count of murder with a sentencing enhancement of using a knife.
But he has not been charged with a hate crime.
Spurred by the Bernstein case, state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) on Friday announced Senate Bill 971, which seeks to expand the scope of sentencing enhancements for murder convictions to include gender and sexual orientation.
Currently, there are no sentencing enhancements for people convicted of murdering someone because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender.
“This means that under current law, committing a crime against someone who is gay could be called a hate crime, which carries its own lower penalties, but murdering someone specifically because they are gay does not constitute a special circumstance, thus eliminating a more just punishment,” Nguyen said.
Typically, a sentencing enhancement of that nature on a murder charge carries a minimum sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said.
“Details of this case have come to light that have further underscored the senselessness of this act, as it has not been ruled out that Blaze’s sexual orientation could have been the reason for his murder,” Nguyen said. “This is a sad and heartbreaking prospect for all.”
Rackauckas declined to comment Friday about specific evidence in the investigation that could point to a special circumstance charge like the one outlined in the proposed legislation. He also declined to discuss a possible motive in the killing, adding that the case is still being investigated.
In an interview with The Times on Friday, Bernstein’s mother said she welcomed Nguyen’s proposed bill.
“Of course, we take comfort that should this bill pass, we will be one step closer to providing a safer California for LGBTQ members to live and thrive,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said.
She said she broke down after hearing the news of the proposed legislation.
“I am crying because there is nothing that can bring my son home to me,” she said. “There is nothing that can bring back any of the innocent beautiful souls that have been lost to us because of ignorance and hate.”
The family is planning a memorial called A Tribute to Blaze Bernstein and A Communal Call for Kindness from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Segerstrom Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa on Feb. 25. Tickets are free. More information is available at Blazebernstein.org.
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