Penn Student’s Murder Enhanced as Hate Crime

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The Orange County District Attorney’s Office in California announced a hate crime enhancement to the charges against Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 21, who allegedly killed University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, 19, in January.

Woodward is charged with one felony count of murder. The amended complaint, filed Aug. 2, adds that it was a hate crime, motivated by Bernstein’s sexual orientation. This could elevate the penalty from 25 years to life in prison to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Blaze Bernstein | Photo provided

“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. All of this revealed the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement.


Bernstein was visiting his family during winter break from Penn when he was killed.

According to a press release from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, Bernstein and Woodward knew each other from attending Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif. On the night of Jan. 2, Woodward picked up Bernstein from his family’s home in Lake Forest, Calif., and later drove him to Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Woodward allegedly stabbed Bernstein multiple times there and buried him in the park’s dirt perimeter.

The next day, Bernstein’s parents reported him missing, which set off a search across the country, including in Philadelphia. Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators found Bernstein’s body after an eight-day search that included the use of drones, helicopter searches and K-9 dogs.

A ProPublica article from Jan. 26 reported that Woodward was a member of Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi organization. According to the article, Woodward joined the organization in 2016 and later traveled to Texas to participate in a training camp, which provided instruction on firearms, hand-to-hand combat, camping and survival skills.

Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, said the enhancement gives her relief that the case is progressing. She said she hopes a connection is also found between the murder’s motivation and the fact that her son is Jewish.

If Bernstein’s religion was found to be a motivation, prosecutors could also file special circumstances allegations, which would make the applicable penalty death or imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. Sexual orientation is not considered a special circumstance under California law, unlike race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward

On Jan. 31, California state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-District 34) introduced a bill adding sexual orientation and gender to the list of special circumstances. The bill would not have an impact on this case.

“In my mind, the greater the charge, the greater the sentence, the better chance he will not be able to hurt anyone ever again,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said. “I’m not very concerned about an eye for an eye, revenge or anything like that. I don’t really have any thoughts that that would accomplish anything. I just want to focus on positive things, and the only positive thing that can come now is that he wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone ever again.”

Bernstein was on a pre-med track at Penn. He enjoyed cooking and writing and had a position as managing editor of Penn Appétit and as a copy editor for The Penn Review. He was both creative and a scientist, said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, where the Bernstein family has belonged for decades.

“He always had a sweetness about him,” Rachlis said. “Not that many teenagers display the maturity he did. He used both sides of his brain.”  

Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said that, during the search, people came over to her house to try to help. Some even offered money for a reward. She was surprised by the attention her son’s case received but felt like it was overwhelming.

“I know it makes people feel good to do something for us,” she said. “They want to do something. They feel terrible about what’s happened. They want to do something, but it would be so much better if they gave that money to a community cause.”

She and her husband, Gideon Bernstein, first suggested that people donate money to Orangewood Foundation, which provides foster and community youth services. Then they started to tell people to just do something nice for someone else. This led to the #BlazeItForward campaign, which encourages people to do an act of kindness, such as paying for someone else’s groceries, and then share it through social media.

Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said she’s glad that at least something positive like the #BlazeItForward campaign has come out of this.

“Nothing can bring my son back,” she said, “and that’s the only thing that I want.” 

szighelboim@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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