The 21-year-old man charged with killing former Penn sophomore Blaze Bernstein was sexually "confused," his lawyer said on Wednesday.
“He has Asperger’s disorder,” Edward Muñoz said about his client Samuel Woodward to Buzzfeed News. “He has a lot of issues, I think, around sexual orientation.”
During a quick hearing in Orange County Superior Court, Woodward denied the allegation of a hate crime — a sentence enhancement which was added to the murder charge earlier this month when Orange Country District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced that prosecutors thought Woodward killed Bernstein, 19, because he was gay.
“A hate crime enhancement based on sexual orientation is appropriate due to the evidence developed by looking at Woodward’s cell phone, laptop, and social media,” Rackauckas said in a press conference on Aug. 2. “All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”
Prosecutors intend to present evidence linking Woodward to the Atomwaffen Division, a violent neo-Nazi group, which was allegedly among a range of other alt-right organizations behind the racist flyers that appeared at various American universities, including Penn, in late 2016.
In January, the nonprofit news organization ProPublica released a report showing that Woodward trained with the hate group.
When questioned about racist, mysoginistic, and homophobic memes and messages allegedly posted by Woodward online, Muñoz told reporters that his client faced certain social challenges due to autism.
“They don’t formulate lasting personal relationships in their life,” Muñoz said to Buzzfeed News. “They’re very isolated people. That leads them to go where they’re accepted.”
He added that Woodward made social connections through race.
“He is a blonde, blue-eyed young man,” Muñoz said. “There’s only going to be certain clubs he’s going to be allowed into.”
Woodward is being held in Orange County Jail with bail set at $5 million. If convicted, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole with the sentencing enhancement. He pleaded not guilty to the murder charge during a previous court appearance on Feb. 2 — exactly a month after Bernstein went missing while at home in California for winter break.
A former high school classmate of Bernstein's at Orange County School of the Arts, Woodward was charged with murder on Jan. 17, a week after Bernstein's body was found in a shallow grave at the perimeter of a park in Orange County.
While the Aug. 22 court appearance was slated to be a preliminary hearing for the trial, the hearing was extended to Sept. 4, according to Rebecca Moss, a public affairs specialist with the Orange County DA's office.
“He appeared for a hearing today where he was arraigned on the amended complaint that was filed by the DA office recently, which added the hate crime enhancement," Moss said. "Woodward today pleaded not guilty to the information on the amended complaint.”
Moss noted that no plea deals have been offered in the case, adding that it is common for hearings to be continued repeatedly in cases such as this.
"Even [in] cases without additional charges, sometimes the hearings get continued especially because for a preliminary hearing, they’re going to have to present a lot of evidence," Moss explained. "As far as a case like this, there hasn’t been much time in the grand scheme of things, as we continue to follow this case, I’d expect more hearings in the future to be continued.”