Suspect Pleads Not Guilty in Blaze Bernstein Murder

A man accused of killing a gay former classmate in a Lake Forest park has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.

Authorities say Samuel Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, killed 19-year-old sophomore Blaze Bernstein, who was home in the city of Lake Forest for winter break. Authorities say the two attended the Orange County School of the Arts but did not know if they were friends at the time.

Bernstein was missing for a week after going out with Woodward the night of Jan. 2, according to authorities. Police searched for him with help from drone pilots and found his body at a neighborhood park in the community 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles after rain partially exposed it.

Woodward is charged with murder and an enhancement for use of a knife. He is being held without bail.

Bernstein was gay and Jewish, and authorities are investigating the possibility of a hate crime.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declined to discuss whether authorities believe Bernstein was killed because he was gay but told reporters Friday that the case showed the need to change state law to include sexual orientation and gender as motivating factors for more serious murder charges.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen said she was proposing legislation to make the change.

A murder charge with special circumstances, which now include race, religion and other categories, is eligible for the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole.

According to a court filing obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that he became angry after Bernstein kissed him the night they went to the park.

If convicted of the charge and enhancement, Woodward could face as much as 26 years to life in prison.

At college, Bernstein was studying psychology and was recently chosen to edit a campus culinary magazine. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for him and his funeral.

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