Blaze Bernstein trial: Samuel Woodward testifies in hate crime trial

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

The man charged with the alleged hate-crime fatal stabbing of a former gay classmate in Foothill Ranch went back to testifying Monday after telling jurors he was high on marijuana when he realized the victim had unbuckled the defendant’s pants and was touching him before the attack.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 26, is charged with the Jan. 3, 2018, killing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein.

Testifying in his own defense Thursday, Woodward said that after the pair had reconnected and were talking on Snapchat, Woodward suggested getting together, so Bernstein sent him his address where Woodward picked him up. The two then went to nearby Borrego Park, where Woodward opened a sleeping bag stuffed with snacks, drinks and marijuana, he testified.

Woodward said he took a “couple of puffs” of a heady strain of marijuana that relaxed the nervous defendant.

“I continued to tune in and out” under the influence, Woodward said.

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He said the marijuana helped distract him from “how ridiculous I must have looked,” explaining that others had viewed him as behaving outrageously while under the influence.

Woodward, who has been diagnosed as autistic, testified earlier about his difficulty in developing romantic relationships or friendships, and about his difficulty communicating with others.

The long, shaggy-haired and bearded defendant often looked down as he testified, prompting his attorney, Ken Morrison of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office to remind him to get the hair out of his face or to look up.

Woodward testified Thursday that he felt something on his leg, making him think he perhaps had urinated on himself as he had done in the past while under the influence of the strong strain of marijuana.

Woodward felt himself “nodding off” as the feeling persisted, but then, “I snapped open and I literally looked right next to myself. I saw a hand on my crotch with my pants unbuckled.”

He added, “I looked right up and (Bernstein) had his phone in his hand. … His hand was in the innermost area of my thigh.”

Woodward, who had been staring downward, was cajoled by Morrison to make eye contact with the defense attorney. He admitted it was “very difficult” to talk about Bernstein touching his private parts.

“Sam, please look at me,” Morrison said. “Do you believe Blaze Bernstein deserved to die that night?”

“No,” Woodward said.

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The defendant said he “came undone” as he realized Bernstein was touching him as they were lying on the ground at the park.

“I went into a state of … terror,” he said. “I remember just asking, `What are you doing?’ … I just remember asking again and again what are you doing?”

Bernstein said “something like calm down … or it’s not a big deal,” Woodward testified. “All I remember is him telling me something that sounded like `It’s already done,’ and `I got you, I got you.”‘

Woodward said he was in “mortal terror” as he realized the victim was using his phone to document the encounter.

“I thought he might photograph me, send text messages,” he said. “I thought he might record me.”

Woodward said he also saw Bernstein appearing to type on the phone, indicating he was texting.

“He kept saying something like, `I got you, already… I got you! I got you, you (expletive) hypocrite,’ ” Woodward said.

Woodward had a reputation at the Orange County School of the Arts where they were classmates for four years of coming from a conservative family and denying any homosexual tendencies despite at least one classmate saying the defendant would send him nude photos of himself. Woodward denied during the trial that he sent nude photos of himself despite contrary evidence.

“I maybe heard him use the word `outed,’ ” Woodward testified.

When Morrison asked his client what he feared, he said he was frightened of the reaction he would receive from his family and community if they found out.

“Just thinking of the look on (his father’s) face… if it got out at all,” Woodward said. “I couldn’t fathom that.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Samuel Woodward’s attorney says he did kill Blaze Bernstein, but not for the reasons prosecutors allege

Earlier in June 2017 when the two first reconnected on Tinder and Bernstein told Woodward he was gay, Woodward extracted a promise from Bernstein not to tell anyone about their matching on the dating app, he said.

Woodward, who carried a knife with him “almost all the time” then, said the two got into a struggle over the phone in the dark.

“Everything was a blur,” he said. “I remember talking to him, using a voice I shouldn’t have, yelling at the top of my lungs… I tried getting up, I tried reaching for the phone. I tried grabbing it…. Push came to shove I couldn’t control myself. I lost it. I didn’t even know what to think. I was disgusted. I was enraged.”

It was the middle of the night, so, “I could barely even seem him,” he said.

“I found one of the knives,” he said of what he used as a tool at a job to open containers.

“I couldn’t even see what was going on and at that point,” he said, pausing a long moment, “I just, the phone wasn’t even in the light anymore. Nothing was in the light anymore. I just kept driving and driving the knife down.”

Morrison asked the defendant what he was thinking in the moment.

“The anger I never felt in my whole life,” he said.

When asked how Bernstein responded, he said, “During that time and the ensuing tumble I just never felt nothing other than being clawed and bitten.”

Woodward recalled then “smashing” Bernstein’s phone.

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Realizing what had happened, “I remember panicking… I just remember losing my mind… I remember just not knowing what to do,” he said.

Woodward said he used his “bare hands” to dig the shallow grave he dragged the body to.

Woodward, who is accused of killing Bernstein because of his sexuality, denied that his attack was motivated in any way by his association with a neo-Nazi group, which has come into evidence to support the prosecution’s legal theory.

The defense attorney asked Woodward if he intended to kill Bernstein when he went to pick him up that night.

“No, no, not at all,” he said.

“Did you believe he was being nice to you, friendly to you?” Morrison asked him.

“Somewhat. I think so,” Woodward said.

“Were you pleased he agreed to meet with you?”

“Yeah,” Woodward replied.

“When you picked up Blaze Bernstein at his house, did you hate him because he was gay?” Morrison asked the defendant.

“No, not at all,” Woodward said.

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“Did you hate him because he was Jewish,” Morrison asked.

“No, not at all,” Woodward said.

Under questioning from Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker, Woodward acknowledged he had been dishonest with Bernstein in some of their conversations online.

Walker also questioned Woodward about text messages he sent to Bernstein after he was dead asking where he was as a way to cover up the crime.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.