Orange County prosecutors announced Thursday they have added a hate-crime allegation against the 21-year-old Newport Beach man charged with the January killing of a gay former high school classmate, Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found buried in a shallow grave at a Lake Forest park.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward was charged with murder earlier this year, but prosecutors did not immediately deem the killing a hate crime. Adding the allegation means Woodward — who was already facing 26 years to life in prison — could now face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The amended criminal complaint filed against Woodward alleges he carried out the killing due to the 19-year-old Bernstein’s sexual orientation.
Woodward is accused of fatally stabbing Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania pre-med student who was last seen by Woodward late the night of Jan. 2. Bernstein was found dead a week later in a shallow grave at Borrego Park near his family’s home.
Woodward and Bernstein were classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana and had reconnected through the social media platform Snapchat. Bernstein was home from college on winter break when he was slain.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in January that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ Lake Forest home about 11 p.m. Jan. 2, and drove him to a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later, the two went to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, he said.
At some point, Woodward allegedly stabbed Bernstein multiple times, then buried the body in a dirt perimeter at the park.
A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register in January suggested that Bernstein may have tried to kiss Woodward, who responded by killing him in an act of rage.
Rackauckas noted in January that state law does not allow prosecutors to attach a special-circumstance allegation to a murder charge in a case when a victim is targeted because they are female or gay. A special-circumstance allegation could lead to a possible death sentence.