21 Year Old Charged with Hate Crime, for Murder of 19 Year Old Student

On the 3rd of January 2018, University of Pennsylvania student, Blaze Bernstein, was visiting his family in Lake Forest, California for winter break when he went missing. Later that week Bernstein’s body was discovered in a shallow grave at a park in the surrounding areas. The 19 year old college student seemed to have been stabbed over 20 times.

Investigators arrested Bernstein’s high-school friend Samuel Woodward, 20, after accessing Bernstein’s Snapchat account. Woodward had allegedly picked up Bernstein on the night of the incident, and drove with him to the parking lot of a shopping center. Woodward was identified as the main suspect based on DNA evidence found in his car and at the crime scene. He was arrested on suspicion of murder.

Woodward has since been charged with murder and was facing a maximum of 26 years to life in prison. However, due to recent findings on Woodward’s phone and social media accounts, in early August of 2018, prosecutors added a hate crime enhancement to the first-degree murder charge.

Woodward mentioned in his initial statement that Bernstein had attempted to kiss him when they were in the car together. This information has been connected to data recently uncovered on Woodward’s phone, including a number of graphic and chilling texts and images, to show that Woodward intended to murder Bernstein because he was gay.  The material found was homophobic, racist, misogynistic and anti-government. Woodward has since been linked to a white supremacist group called Atomwaffen.

Hate Crime Categories

If found guilty of a hate crime, Woodward could face a maximum sentence of life in state prison without parole.

In California, hate crimes fall under two general categories:

  1. Penal Code 422.6, which makes it a stand-alone crime to interfere with someone else’s civil rights, or damage or destroy their property because of that person’s characteristics including any of the following:
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  1. Penal Code 422.7 and Penal Code 422.75, state that if (1) you commit a crime such as assault or vandalism, and (2)you are motivated in part by the fact that the victim has one of the characteristics on the list above, then the criminal offense will be considered a “hate crime” and will result in an enhanced sentence.

Murder Charge Sentence Enhancements

There are two types of possible enhancements to a murder charge:

  1. PC 190.2(a)(16), which states that if you kill somebody and it is proven that your motive was that person’s race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin, it will be considered a special circumstance, and the punishment could be the death penalty, or life without parole.
  2. PC 190.3, which states that if you kill somebody and it is proven that your motive was the person’s sexual orientation, gender, or disability, you could be sentenced to life without parole.

Consequently, Woodward is now facing the possibility of being charged with PC 190.3, which would enhance his sentence from 26 years to life in prison to life without the possibility of parole.

Reacting to a Hate Crime Accusation

If you are accused of a hate crime, you may be able to avoid the charge or reduce the severity of charges through certain legal defenses that your criminal defense lawyer can argue, such as:

  • You didn’t commit a crime in the first place, and are being charged only because of false accusations or something similar.
  • You did commit a crime, but it was not motivated by bias and doesn’t qualify as a hate crime.
  • You did commit a crime that was motivated by bias, but it doesn’t meet one or more of the legal requirements to bring it within the statute under which you were charged.

If you or someone you know has been falsely charged with a hate crime, contact us 24 hours a day at (310) 448-1529 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Our office is conveniently located in the Westside Towers in Los Angeles, within minutes of Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and steps away from the Expo/Bundy Station. We have flexible hours and weekend appointments, and we will visit you in jail to discuss your case.

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