Former classmate found guilty of murdering gay teen Blaze Bernstein

Bernstein, 19, was stabbed to death in a park in 2018.

Samuel Woodward, a California man accused of killing his former classmate in 2018, has been found guilty in the hate crime case.

Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old gay, Jewish student at the University of Pennsylvania, disappeared while visiting his family in Newport Beach during winter break in January 2018. His body was found after a days-long search, buried in a Lake Forest park where he had been with Woodward the night he disappeared, authorities said. He had been stabbed 28 times, prosecutors said.

Woodward, now 26, was charged with first-degree murder with a hate crime enhancement. Prosecutors had alleged that Woodward killed his high school classmate because Bernstein was gay.

Woodward had denied any wrongdoing.

The jury reached its verdict Wednesday afternoon after a nearly three-month trial in Orange County.

There was applause from the gallery when they heard that Woodward had been convicted of the aggravating circumstance of committing a hate crime. Judge Kimberly Menninger asked the people to “take it easy.”

“I understand it’s emotional, but I just can’t handle that,” she said.

The verdict is scheduled for October 25. He faces life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Bernstein’s family said in a statement that the verdict “provides some closure” six and a half years after the teen’s murder, but that it “cannot take away the pain of losing our son and the anguish of all these years of waiting without resolution.”

“No sentence can bring Blaze back. He was a wonderful human being and humanitarian and a person we were so excited to have in our lives, to see wonderful things from as his young life unfolded,” the family said in a statement read by a representative at a news conference after the sentencing. “A funny, articulate, kind, intelligent, caring and brilliant scientist, artist, writer, chef and son, there will never be another. His gifts will now never be realized or shared.”

Jennifer Walker, Orange County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, said she was grateful for the ruling.

“I’m so happy for the Bernsteins because it’s been a very painful process,” she said during the press conference.

Defense attorney Ken Morrison told jurors during the plea that Woodward is guilty of murder, but said it was not a hate crime but a spontaneous, irrational act.

“You heard me say right away that my client was guilty,” Morrison said. “Guilty of a serious, violent manslaughter. But as you also know, there are many different types of manslaughter.”

Woodward testified during the trial that on the night of the murder, he went into a state of fear after he thought Bernstein was filming him sexually assaulting him in the park, and then pulled out a knife, ABC Los Angeles station KABC reported.

Walker told jurors during the plea that Woodward’s hatred of gays and his ties to Atomwaffen Division, a far-right neo-Nazi group, prompted him to plan the killing.

“He already had his bags, he was already talking to Atomwaffen people about going somewhere else, and he thought he was going to get away with it,” she said. “It was only by the grace of God that rain fell and they found his body.”

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