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Years after a college student was fatally stabbed, a California man is set to stand trial in a hate crime case

More than six years after the tragic death of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, a trial is set to begin for the Southern California man accused of stabbing him to death in what authorities allege was a hate-motivated crime.

Opening statements are slated for Tuesday in the murder trial of Samuel Woodward, now 26 years old, hailing from Newport Beach, California. Woodward has entered a plea of not guilty.

Woodward stands accused of fatally stabbing Bernstein, a 19-year-old gay, Jewish college sophomore who was home for winter break. Both young men had previously attended the same high school in Orange County.

Bernstein went missing after going out with Woodward to a park in Lake Forest, California, in January 2018. His parents discovered his glasses, wallet, and credit cards in his bedroom the following day, prompting concern when he missed a scheduled dentist appointment and failed to respond to messages or calls, according to prosecutors’ trial brief.

Several days later, Bernstein’s body was discovered buried in a shallow grave at the park.

Authorities allege that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ residence after connecting with him on Snapchat and then proceeded to stab him nearly 20 times in the face and neck.

DNA evidence reportedly linked Woodward to the crime, and his cellphone was said to contain a wealth of anti-gay, antisemitic, and hate group materials.

The prosecution’s brief asserts that Woodward had sought membership in the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, known for its advocacy of white supremacy, approximately a year prior to the incident. Furthermore, it cites journal entries, including one titled “diary of hate,” in which Woodward purportedly detailed threats he claimed to have made against gay individuals online.

A folding knife with a bloodied blade was allegedly discovered in Woodward’s room at his parents’ residence in the affluent enclave of Newport Beach. Woodward was apprehended two days after the incident.

Woodward has entered a plea of not guilty to murder charges, with an enhancement for a hate crime.

The case’s journey to trial spanned several years, marked by concerns regarding Woodward’s mental health and numerous changes in defense counsel. Woodward was ultimately deemed fit to stand trial in late 2022.

One of Woodward’s former attorneys asserted that his client grappled with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder often associated with challenges in social interaction, as well as personal struggles regarding his own sexuality.

Woodward’s current attorney, Ken Morrison, cautioned against premature judgments regarding the case, urging respect for the judicial process and emphasizing the importance of allowing a jury to assess all available evidence.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office declined to offer comment on the case prior to the commencement of the trial.

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