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August 03, 2018

Prosecutors: Killing of Penn student motivated by anti-gay hate

Blaze Bernstein, a sophomore, was stabbed to death in his native California in January

Courts Blaze Bernstein
01072018_Blaze_Bernstein_OCSD Source/Ocean County Sheriff's Department

Blaze Bernstein is seen in a family photo released by the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

A University of Pennsylvania student was killed by a Southern California man because he was gay, prosecutors said Thursday.

Samuel Woodward, 21, is already charged with murder in the January death of sophomore Blaze Bernstein, but prosecutors have added a hate crime sentencing enhancement to that charge, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced Thursday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Bernstein, 19, was on winter break visiting his parents in the Lake Forest community of Foothill Ranch, about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles. His body was found buried in a shallow grave in the park nearly a week after he went missing.

Woodward, of Newport Beach, California, has pleaded not guilty to the killing and is held on $5 million bail. An August 22 preliminary hearing is scheduled.

Woodward now faces a maximum potential sentence of life without parole if convicted, instead of the maximum sentence of 26 years to life in prison before the hate crime enhancement. An earlier report by ProPublica alleged Woodward had links to a neo-Nazi group, Atomwaffen Division.

Since Bernstein’s body was found, investigators looked at Woodward’s cellphone, laptop and social media and found hateful materials against a several groups as well as substantial evidence Bernstein was killed because he was gay, Rackauckas said, the LA Times report said.

“We have no room for this kind of hate in our society,” Rackauckas told reporters.

For months, authorities indicated the case was being investigated as a possible hate crime. Bernstein was Jewish and gay.

According to an Associated Press report:

Rackauckas declined to specify what materials were found in Woodward’s accounts, but he said they were racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic. He urged anyone with information showing Woodward had ties to hate groups to contact authorities. “There could be other charges filed as evidence develops,” he said.

“There’s a lot there that just spews hatred towards a lot of different groups of people, basically every protected group,” Rackauckas said. “So it’s hatred of many different groups of people. But the evidence of the motivation for this particular killing is we can show evidence that he killed him at least substantially because he was gay.”

A message was left for Woodward’s attorney by the Associated Press.

California law permits prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases where people are killed for their race, religion or nationality, but not sexual orientation. A state bill was proposed to include sexual orientation after Bernstein's death.