Prior to Samuel Woodward’s court appearance this afternoon as a suspect in the Blaze Bernstein murder case, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced a new legislative effort in its wake. With State Senator Janet Nguyen by his side, Rackauckas offered no comments on the investigation at a called press conference, but noted a revelation of another kind.
“Over the last several weeks, we have discovered a glaring omission in our laws to protect all members of our community, especially LGBTQ members,” Rackauckas said. “This community is often targeted for persecution and prejudice.” Currently, state law offers no “protected class” status for victims murdered because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. If found guilty, the hate crime enhancement would have Woodward sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or even the death penalty.
Bernstein, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student home on break in Lake Forest, was both gay and Jewish. ProPublica reporters tied Woodward, a 20-year-old Newport Beach resident, to Atomwaffen Division, a fascist extremist group. The two had previously been classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana. According to a sheriff’s affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward claimed he picked up Bernstein on Jan. 2 from his Lake Forest home and drove to the parking lot of Hobby Lobby in Foothill Ranch. That’s where Bernstein kissed Woodward on the lips, a move that Woodward told authorities was unwanted so much so that he wanted to call him a “faggot.”
Prosecutors allege that Woodward stabbed Bernstein to death afterward and buried him at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Following an intense search, his remains were recovered in a shallow grave a week after the encounter. Bernstein’s body had more than 20 stab wounds. “Unfortunately, laws often need to be revised in light of tragic situations,” Rackauckas added. “It’s time that California places members of the LGBTQ community as a protected class of victims of special circumstances murder.”
Nguyen spoke about her efforts to change that in Sacramento going forward with Senate Bill 971. “The fact that parole may be an option in a case where an individual is murdered for his or her sexual orientation and gender is absolutely wrong and unacceptable,” she said. “Senate Bill 971 would not only provide future victims with appropriate justice but will send a strong message, a clear message, to individuals who commit crimes against any members of the LGBTQ community that they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Any legislation passed will be too late for the Bernstein case in terms of adding hate crime charges based on his sexual orientation. But he’s also Jewish, a point reporters at the press conference pondered. “There can be more than one hate crime motivations operating at the same time,” Rackauckas said.
Woodward pleaded not guilty to the crime this afternoon in Orange County Superior Court. A judge set his bail at $5 million.