February 02, 2018
The man charged with killing a gay University of Pennsylvania student in California pleaded not guilty on Friday.
Samuel Woodward, 20, entered the plea during an arraignment in a Santa Ana courtroom, but questions remain over whether he should be charged with a hate crime.
Woodward is charged in the fatal stabbing of Blaze Bernstein, 19, a Penn sophomore, who was visiting his parents in southern California over the holidays at the time of his death.
A judge set bail at $5 million but required Woodward to wear a GPS monitor, the Associated Press reported.
The case has led a California state senator to propose a change to state law to include sexual orientation and gender as motivating factors for more serious murder charges, the Los Angeles Times reported.
According to law enforcement authorities, Woodward stabbed Bernstein early this month, burying his body at a neighborhood park near the Bernstein family home in Lake Forest, Ocean County, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The two men were classmates in high school.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said he doesn’t know whether Bernstein was killed because he was gay, according to media reports.
According to Rackauckas, a first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 25 years to life. A murder charge with special circumstances is eligible for the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole, the L.A. Times reported.
A murder conviction could carry a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison. Woodward 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.
But a report published Jan. 26 in ProPublica, citing three anonymous sources, said Woodward was a member of the Atomwaffen Division, an obscure but notorious extremist group that allegedly hopes to someday overthrow the U.S. government through terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
The site, which spoke to two of Woodward's friends and one former Atomwaffen member, reported that the 20-year-old joined the organization in early 2016 and obtained pictures that appear to depict Woodward in Texas at a three-day training camp, which included instruction in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, camping and survival skills.
One picture shows Woodward and two other members making a straight-armed Nazi salute while wearing skull masks.