The suspect charged in the murder of College sophomore Blaze Bernstein was due to appear in court Friday afternoon. Samuel Woodward pleaded not guilty and his bail was set at $5 million, KTLA reported.
Bernstein went missing on Jan. 2, just five days before he was supposed to return to campus for the start of the spring semester, and was discovered dead in a shallow grave near the perimeter of Borrego Park in Orange County, Calif. a week later.
Woodward entered his plea for not guilty and his bail was set for $5 million, five times the amount of the scheduled bail for the crime.
According to the Washington Post, the Senior Deputy District Attorney for Orange County Steve McGreevy introduced new details of the case in arguing for Woodward's high bail. McGreevy reportedly said the defendant changed his physical appearance in the days following Bernstein's disappearance and attempted to avoid police surveillance.
According to CBS Los Angeles, Woodward must pay approximately $64,000 and put up the rest in collateral to be released on bail.
If released on bail, CBS LA reported, Woodward would have to adhere to a set of conditions including the purchase and use of a GPS monitoring system and remaining in California.
He would also reportedly be subject to a curfew between 10:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., would have to forfeit his expired passport, and would be served a protective order concerning the witnesses and Bernstein's family.
On Jan. 26, ProPublica published a report identifying Woodward as allegedly having close ties with an extremist neo-Nazi group, the Atomwaffen Division.
At Penn, Bernstein had just been elected as the managing editor of the food magazine Penn Appétit before he returned home for break. He was a copy associate for Penn Review and was slated to work as a copy associate for 34th Street Magazine. To celebrate Bernstein's memory, family and friends will host an on-campus memorial on Feb. 18.
On Jan. 12, the Orange County Sheriff's Office announced they had arrested Woodward, who had attended high school at the Orange County School of the Arts with Bernstein. According to the Orange County Sheriff's Office, Woodward was the last person with Bernstein before he disappeared.
A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register allegedly detailed parts of a conversation detectives had with Woodward on Jan. 4. It indicated that the detectives noticed Woodward's hands were scratched and that he seemed to have "dirt under his fingernails." The affidavit also reportedly stated that he attributed the abrasions to a "fight club."
Woodward was charged in the murder of Bernstein on Jan. 17.
At a press conference on Jan. 17, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said investigators had yet to establish a motive but that they were “open to all evidence.”
“The question of a hate crime is one question that we have about the possibility of special circumstances, and so we’re looking to see whether or not that might be supported,” Rackauckas said.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Calif.) also announced a new piece of legislation changing the state's penal code, partly in response to details of the case.
In a press conference at the Orange Country District Attorney's office, Nguyen introduced Senate Bill 971 to expand the existing language of Penal Code Section 190.2, "special circumstance murder," to include "sexual orientation" and "gender" to the existing protected classes of "race, color, religion, nationality and country of origin.”
Under current California law an individual found guilty of murder in the first degree who meets one of the stated special circumstances can be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.
"A special circumstance charge would be significant when dealing with murder cases such as these that are heinous and hateful in nature," Nguyen said in a press release. "A special circumstance charge makes the difference between parole and a mandated sentence of either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole."
In a press conference, Rackauckas referenced Woodward's case multiple times but did not comment on the evidence of the case.
"As we strive to protect all members of society, it’s a glaring omission that sexual orientation is not a protected class of crime victims of special circumstances murder in California," he said.
"Interestingly enough, they are protected members in other penal code sections. If the sexual orientation of a victim is a substantial factor in a defendant’s intent to murder, then he or she should be subjected to the punishment of life without possibility of parole and face the possibility of a death penalty," Rackauckas continued.
Woodward is charged with one felony count of murder with a sentencing enhancement for the use of a knife. According to Rackauckas, if these changes are implemented, Woodward's case will not be affected.
Even without the sentencing enhancement, if convicted, Woodward could face 26 years to life in prison.
"As the investigation has moved forward, law enforcement has acted swiftly, and today there is a defendant who has been charged for Blaze’s murder," Nguyen said in the press release. "In addition to these important developments, details of this case have come to light that have further underscored the senselessness of this act, as it has not been ruled out that Blaze’s sexual orientation could have been the reason for his murder. This is a sad and heartbreaking prospect for all."
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