A 21-year-old Newport Beach man charged with murder in the stabbing death of former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein will also face a hate crime sentencing enhancement, the Orange County district attorney announced Thursday.
Orange County District Atty. Tony Rackauckas said prosecutors added the hate crime enhancement based on allegations that Samuel Woodward killed 19-year-old Bernstein because Bernstein was gay.
“A hate crime enhancement based on sexual orientation is appropriate due to the evidence developed by looking at Woodward’s cellphone, laptop and social media,” Rackauckas said. “All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”
Rackauckas declined to elaborate on the evidence investigators discovered.
The sentencing enhancement means that if Woodward is convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in state prison without parole. Before Thursday’s announcement, the maximum he could have spent behind bars was 26 years to life, according to prosecutors.
Woodward has pleaded not guilty to murder and denied a sentencing enhancement based on allegations of personal use of a knife. He is expected to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 22, according to Orange County Superior Court records.
Bernstein had been on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania and visiting his parents in Lake Forest, when he disappeared in January. His family members reported him missing Jan. 3.
Bernstein’s partially buried body was found Jan. 9 at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. A recent rainstorm had washed away some of the dirt covering the remains.
Authorities allege that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ house about 11 p.m. Jan. 2 after an interaction on Snapchat and drove him to the parking lot of a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later that night, Woodward drove Bernstein to Borrego Park, authorities say.
Detectives linked Woodward to the slaying through DNA evidence at Borrego Park and inside his car, authorities said.