Blaze Bernstein (Photo/Forward-Courtesy Jeanne Pepper)
Blaze Bernstein (Photo/Forward-Courtesy Jeanne Pepper)

Trial set to begin in Blaze Bernstein murder case dominated by questions of antisemitism and homophobia

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Six years after the death of gay Jewish college student Blaze Bernstein, a jury will hear evidence Tuesday against the man prosecutors say murdered him, a former high school classmate allegedly active in a neo-Nazi group at the time of the killing.

Bernstein, then 19, met up with Samuel Woodward in Orange County, California, in January 2018, and the two drove to a park, where prosecutors say Woodward stabbed him to death. Bernstein’s body was found at the park seven days later, and a knife with Bernstein’s blood on it was soon discovered at Woodward’s home.

The case, which gained media attention while Bernstein was missing, became a disturbing exemplar of the rise of far-right extremism when Woodward’s connection to a local neo-Nazi group, the Atomwaffen Division, was revealed.

Tuesday’s opening arguments will reveal how the defense plans to respond to the evidence admitted by Judge Kim Menninger, which includes diary entries Woodward, now 26 or 27, sent to himself before the alleged killing in which he gleefully describes catfishing gay men only to reject and disparage them.

Woodward, who originally told investigators Bernstein tried to kiss him and then got out of his truck and walked away, has pleaded not guilty to one charge of first-degree murder. A sentence could carry added time for use of a deadly weapon and a hate crime.

The defense has indicated that it will concede that Woodward did kill Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore at the time of his death. During a February pre-trial evidence hearing, Ken Morrison, Woodward’s third public defender since his arrest — stated that his client stabbed Bernstein 19 times. (The number of stab wounds was already known.)

Diary entries

Menninger, who deemed Woodward competent to stand trial in 2022, ruled that only diary entries that were homophobic or antisemitic in nature could be admitted as evidence, excluding other racist writings.

But not all messages fitting that description was admitted, partly because Woodward was a minor when he sent them. Menninger excluded a 2015 email in which Woodward stated that “the Jew will always try to destroy the society in which he resides” because the message’s recipient was unknown, and because it was possible that as a minor Woodward may have changed his opinion in the roughly three years between his writing it and Bernstein’s death.

Still, Menninger’s selectivity left prosecutors plenty evidence of hatred to work with. In one diary entry Menninger admitted, Woodward wrote, “I tell sodomites that I’m bicurious, which makes them want to convert me. Get them hooked by acting coy, maybe send them a pic or two. Then bam — I either unfriend them or tell them they’re being pranked. That’s what they get for being f-gs.”

A previous attorney for Woodward stated that his client had Asperger’s syndrome and issues with his own sexual identity.

Prosecutors say Woodward told investigators that he had picked up Bernstein from his home in Lake Forest, California, at around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2018. Woodward allegedly told them that the two then drove to a shopping mall and then Borrego Park, where Bernstein tried to kiss him on the lips.

Delays in getting the case to trial — largely due to revolving public defenders and the Covid-19 pandemic — has frustrated Bernstein’s family, who told the Forward last year the court was “certainly not doing what the criminal justice system was set up to do.”

A verbal outburst by Woodward during jury selection also contributed to the delay, with Menninger deciding — with half the jurors selected — the process needed to restart from the beginning. It was unclear what Woodward said during the outburst.

Little-known before Woodward’s arrest, Atomwaffen Division is an American neo-Nazi organization that rose to the forefront of the white supremacist movement through promises of violence and an impending race war.

An independent researcher of the far-right told the Forward in 2018 that Atomwaffen “should be considered the most potentially violent neo-Nazi group in the U.S. today.”

Woodward is facing life in prison with no possibility of parole.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Louis Keene
Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.