Attorney denies hate-crime in slain U.S. college student murder case

Attorney representing Samuel Woodward, the alleged murderer of Blaze Bernstein, says his client has a 'serious mental disorder'.

Gavel lying in front of a judge (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Gavel lying in front of a judge
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(TNS) A man charged with killing his former high-school classmate denied a hate-crime allegation Wednesday, with his attorney saying that he suffers from a “serious mental disorder.”
Less than a month after Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas alleged that Samuel Lincoln Woodward killed Blaze Bernstein because Bernstein was gay, Woodward appeared in a Newport Beach courtroom for a brief hearing.
Through his attorney, Woodward, 21, denied the added hate-crime enhancement. A preliminary hearing, where a judge will decide if there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial, was delayed until Sept. 4.
After the hearing, Woodward’s attorney, Edward Munoz, responded to claims by prosecutors that a large number of graphic texts and images that Rackauckas described as “racist, antisemitic, misogynistic and anti-government” were found on Woodward’s cellphone, laptop and social-media accounts.
“It wasn’t entirely shocking,” Munoz said outside the courtroom after the hearing. “It was disappointing. You are talking about someone with a serious mental disorder.”
Munoz said Woodward has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder that generally results in someone having difficulty with social interactions. The defense attorney also said Woodward had issues with sexual identity.
Woodward was reportedly a member of the Atomwaffen Division, an armed, fascist organization that the Anti-Defamation League characterizes as “a small, neo-Nazi group whose members see themselves as soldiers preparing for an impending race war.” Munoz didn’t confirm his client was a member, but did say that Woodward tried to connect with others, sometimes in places where most would not venture.
“You are kind of a victim of who you are from a physical standpoint,” Munoz said, specifically mentioning Woodward’s blond hair and blue eyes.
Responding to questions about whether Woodward is gay, or if he was confused about his sexual identity or his feelings about the sexual identities of others, Munoz responded that Woodward was confused about his overall identity.
Woodward, sporting closely cropped hair and a goatee, spoke little during the hearing, only answering, “Yeah” and “Yes” when asked if he agreed to his preliminary hearing being continued.
Woodward and Bernstein were classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana. Bernstein was home from college on winter break when he died.
Prosecutors say that Woodward picked up Bernstein from Bernstein’s Lake Forest home around 11 p.m. on January 2, driving him to a shopping center in Foothill Ranch, then to Borrego Park.
According to court filings, Woodward told detectives that he and Bernstein met to catch up, and that Bernstein tried to kiss him on the lips while the two were sitting in a parked car, authorities have said. Woodward claimed to investigators that he pushed Bernstein away, leaving Bernstein to exit the car and walk alone into the park.
Prosecutors allege Woodward stabbed Bernstein to death and buried his body in the dirt at the edge of the park. A day after the two went out, Bernstein’s parents reported him missing. Six days later, his body was found.
Woodward faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In explaining the need to delay the preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Steve McGreevy told Orange County Superior Court Judge Karen L. Robinson that there was a “voluminous” amount of evidence that is being turned over to the defense.
©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.