The Orange County Sheriff's Department has added a hate crime charge to the allegations against the man accused of murdering former Penn sophomore Blaze Bernstein.
In an Aug. 2 press conference, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said the prosecution will attempt to show that 21-year-old Sam Woodward killed Bernstein because he was gay, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“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 the press conference. “All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”
Rackauckas declined to elaborate on what this evidence was.
If convicted, the hate crime charge could lead to Woodward facing a maximum sentence of life in state prison without parole, the LA Times wrote.
Reports that the homicide was a hate crime have been circulating since the spring, but this is the first time that formal charges are being raised.
Woodward and Bernstein were classmates in high school at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif. Bernstein was a sophomore at Penn when he went missing while home for winter break. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department filed the murder charge two days after Bernstein's body was found on near the perimeter of Borrego Park. He had been stabbed over 20 times.
Woodward was charged with murder on Jan. 17, two weeks after Bernstein disappeared. According to a sealed affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that on the night of the murder, Bernstein, who was gay, had tried to kiss him.
Woodward pleaded not guilty on Feb 2; his bail was set at $5 million.
Later, reports surfaced that Woodward was part of the Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.
Woodward is set to appear in a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 22 at 8:30 a.m. at the Harbor Justice Center. The hearing, which was previously set for June 14, had been delayed because the defense was not ready.