Gay Teen Blaze Bernstein's Murder Was A Hate Crime, OC DA Says

Booking photo of Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20. (OC Sheriff's Department via AP)

The Orange County district attorney believes 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein was killed because of his sexual orientation. The DA's office has added to the charges against Bernstein's former classmate, Samuel Lincoln Woodward, who has already been charged with murder in Bernstein's death.

At a press conference Thursday, officials said they decided on the sentencing enhancement based on evidence that investigators found on Woodward's phone and computer. They wouldn't reveal what that evidence was.

An affidavit made public in January revealed that Woodward, 20, told investigators that Bernstein had tried to kiss him and that he pushed Bernstein away.

Bernstein, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, went missing in January while he was home in Lake Forest for winter break. A week later, Bernstein's remains were found at a nearby park.

Blaze Bernstein, 19. (Photo courtesy of OC Sheriff's Department)

Prosecutors allege that Woodward drove Bernstein to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, where he stabbed his victim multiple times and buried the body on the perimeter of the park.

Bernstein's mother, Jeannie Pepper Berstein, told KPCC's Nick Roman:

"This is bittersweet for us — we do have mixed emotions. Of course, Nobody wants to hear their child has been murdered because they're gay. It's devastating to lose someone to such a horrific, violent act just because he was who he was. He was so many wonderful, good things besides being gay, he was a brilliant writer, a scientist, he was just a very kind person who wanted to make a difference in the world."

The original complaint was one felony count of murder with a sentence enhancement for using a knife. With the hate crime enhancement, Woodward faces the possibility of life in state prison without parole, if convicted.

This is something of a second choice for prosecutors, who want to pursue the death penalty against Woodward. But they've been stymied by the current law, which considers things like race, religion, and other factors as a special circumstance for a separate hate-crime charge—but not sexual orientation.

State Senator Janet Nguyen, who was at the press conference, tried to expand hate-crime laws earlier this year to include sexual orientation, but her bill was struck down in committee.

Officials have put out a call to the public asking for any evidence that Woodward might be a member of a hate group. If they find that, they can pursue the death penalty.

Woodward's trial is scheduled to start with a preliminary hearing on August 22.