California man to stand trial for gay student's slaying

2018-09-05 20:33
Samuel Woodward talks to his attorney Edward Munoz during a court hearing at the Harbor Justice Centre in Newport Beach, California. (Paul Bersebach, The Orange County Register via AP, Pool)

Samuel Woodward talks to his attorney Edward Munoz during a court hearing at the Harbor Justice Centre in Newport Beach, California. (Paul Bersebach, The Orange County Register via AP, Pool)

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About six months before he was stabbed to death in what prosecutors call a hate crime, a gay University of Pennsylvania student graphically discussed hopes to have sex with the man now charged in his killing, an investigator said on Tuesday.

Blaze Bernstein texted a friend a photo of Samuel Woodward and said the two had run into each other and he thought they were going to hook up, saying sex with the former schoolmate would be "legendary".

What led to that encounter was not clear during Woodward's preliminary hearing on murder and hate crime charges, but investigator Craig Goldsmith said among the anti-gay and hateful material found on his phone was mention of his efforts to pose as "gay curious" to attract men and then reveal it as a prank.

"That's what they deserve," Woodward wrote using an anti-gay slur.

Hate crime

Woodward, 21, was ordered to stand trial in Orange County Superior Court on murder and hate crime charges after prosecutors linked him to the stabbing through DNA and showed he had troves of homophobic and neo-Nazi material on his mobile phone. He has pleaded not guilty.

Woodward stabbed Bernstein nearly 20 times in the face and neck after the two met at a park in January, prosecutors said. The two had connected earlier in the evening on Snapchat and Woodward picked up Bernstein at his home.

Woodward told investigators he was disgusted when Bernstein kissed him on the lips in his SUV and pushed him back, but didn't say he did anything violent toward him.

Investigator Dylan Jantzen testified during the one-day hearing that Woodward said he wanted to curse at Bernstein and call the victim a slur for homosexual men.

Bernstein went missing on January 2 and Woodward was arrested about a week later after the body was found in a shallow grave in the Lake Forest park where they had gone that night.

Blood stains from the blade of a knife found in Woodward's bedroom, under his watch and on the visor of his car matched Bernstein so closely that the chance of the genetic material coming from someone else was 1-in-a-trillion, forensic scientist Corrie Maggay testified.

Threats and pranks

Defence lawyer Edward Munoz didn't present any witnesses, but showed on cross-examination that Woodward revealed he had autism and was socially awkward and sexually confused.

Munoz argued there was no evidence of a hate crime because reprehensible writings found on Woodward's phone were not shared with others, but in emails to himself.

"I think in a hate crime instance you have to have an outward manifestation of your loathing to the world," Munoz said after the hearing.

If convicted of first-degree murder and the hate crime allegation, prosecutors could seek a sentence of up to life in prison without parole.

Goldsmith testified that Woodward had over 100 pieces of content related to the violent hate group Atomwaffen. The group's insignia was the wallpaper on his phone.

One email he sent himself was called "Sam's Diary of Hate", and he chatted online with a group about attending a "Death Valley Hate Camp" that included mention of weapons, Goldsmith said.

His phone also included pictures with Nazi references.

Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, was visiting his parents in Lake Forest, California, during winter break from his sophomore year at Penn.

In addition to the email that mentioned Woodward's gay "pranking", he also wrote to himself that he terrified gay men by sending them photos on the gay dating site Grindr of other gay men being killed. He said one person had replied that he was going to call the FBI.

"They think they are going to get hate crimed," he wrote, according to Goldsmith.

Two weeks before the slaying, next to an illustration of a bloody knife, he wrote on Snapchat: "Texting is boring, but murder isn't," according to Jantzen.

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