HomeNewsLocalDefense Begins Closing Argument in Blaze Bernstein Murder Trial

Defense Begins Closing Argument in Blaze Bernstein Murder Trial

SANTA ANA (CNS) – The defense will resume its closing argument Tuesday in the trial of the man charged with the hate-crime fatal stabbing of a former gay classmate in Foothill Ranch.

Attorney Ken Morrison of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office argued Monday that authorities fell victim to “confirmation bias” when concluding Samuel Lincoln Woodward planned the killing to gain prestige with a neo-Nazi group.

Woodward, 26, is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement for a hate crime based on the sexual orientation of the victim, 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein. Woodward also faces a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon.

Jurors will be able to consider first- and second-degree murder as well as voluntary manslaughter. The difference between murder and manslaughter is a life sentence versus a set amount of time in prison.

Morrison argued that investigators for the prosecution jumped at a legal theory of the case and ignored contrary evidence that suggested it was an unplanned and emotional deadly response to what the defendant testified was an unwanted pass at him.

Morrison pointed to the testimony of the chief investigator in the case that authorities did little to track down Tristan Evans, who the defense attorney said “enticed” the socially awkward Woodward into a neo-Nazi group known as the Atomwaffen Division.

Three psychiatric experts have diagnosed Woodward as autistic, and Morrison has argued that his client fruitlessly sought companions over the years only to fail due to his communication problems.

On Friday, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker painted a starkly different portrait of the accused as a scheming gay-bashing, neo-Nazi who killed Bernstein to elevate his status with the Atomwaffen Division.

Walker acknowledged there was not enough evidence to prove Woodward targeted Bernstein because he was Jewish, but the evidence is part of the prosecution’s legal theory to buttress the argument that it was part of a pattern of bigotry.

In the summer of 2017, Woodward went with Evans to Texas, where they lived out of a motel and struggled to find work until they ran out of money and Woodward returned to his Newport Beach home “with his tail between his legs,” Morrison said.

Morrison pointed out that Atomwaffen Division promoted a belief that the American government would collapse by itself and that they wanted to accelerate that and be prepared when it does to prop up a fascist regime.

“How does targeting a teenage gay guy… help perpetuate the agenda?” Morrison asked. “It’s actually inconsistent with it.”

Morrison said there may have been “knuckleheads” in the group that praised the killing, but that it seemed unlikely Woodward intended to get caught and to promote the killing for the cause. Instead, Woodward took steps to cover up the killing, he noted.

“There was no purpose to it,” Morrison said of Bernstein’s death. “It was a reaction.”

One way to show Woodward had a plan to kill someone would be to talk to Evans, Morrison said.

“But law enforcement didn’t talk to him,” Morrison said.

Investigators had a possible address for Evans in Apple Valley but never went to try to find him there, Morrison said. The defense attorney praised the investigators on the case, saying they were not intentionally ignoring evidence that contradicting their case.

“That’s what confirmation bias can do for you,” Morrison said, adding that investigators tend to minimize contradictory evidence.

Morrison also noted Woodward’s “stupid attempt to cover it up,” by not trying to flee and burying the body in a shallow grave with his own hands.

Morrison asked Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger to take judicial notice there was a super moon the night of the Jan. 3, 2018, killing, in an attempt to counter skepticism of Woodward’s account due to the usual darkness of the hour in a park near the victim’s home.

Morrison said his client’s autism did not excuse his actions.

“I didn’t run an autism spectrum disorder defense,” Morrison said..

But to determine the degree of culpability for the killing and to weigh the hate-crime allegation, jurors must “get into the mind of Sam Woodward,” Morrison said.

Woodward was taken to a clinic when he was 18 where he was first diagnosed with autism. Morrison said it was too late for many of the prescribed interventions.

The defendant was also diagnosed as autistic by the defense team’s expert, Martha Rogers, and by an Orange County Health Care Agency doctor while he was in custody, Morrison said. Walker argued Woodward had antisocial conduct disorder and fits the profile of a “lone wolf” terrorist.

Morrison emphasized to the jurors that even if they found both legal theories plausible they had to side with the defense by law. He underscored that prosecutors had to prove their case beyond the reasonable doubt standard.

The defense attorney showed jurors a photo of Woodward starring in his sixth-grade Willy Wonka play, “the highwater mark of his life,” that led his parents to enroll him in the Orange County School of the Arts, where he attended for four out of the six years Bernstein was enrolled there. Woodward eventually transferred to Corona Del Mar High School for his last two years of high school.

Morrison pointed to all of the evidence that contradicted his client’s adamant claims in his testimony that he had homosexual tendencies. Morrison said it was possible his client had homosexual obsessive compulsive disorder as well.

But Woodward sought out the advice of Gabe Morris, a fellow classmate at the Orange County School of the Arts who was openly gay and mentored other classmates. The conversations became so “sexually charged” that Woodward sent nude selfies to his classmate, Morrison said.

And while in college he sent a lewd photo of himself to someone he met online through a dating app, the defense attorney said. Woodward claimed he got the image from the web, but the tile floor seen in the photo matched the one at his college bathroom, Morrison added.

Morris eventually broke off communications with Woodward, Morrison said, noting that contradicted the prosecution’s argument of the defendant as someone who cat-fished gay men so he could “ghost” them.

Morrison also went over a letter his father wrote to his son when Woodward asked him questions about his sexuality after admitting he had done some sexual touching with other males.

Woodward’s denials of repressed homosexuality do not help his case, Morrison argued. He would be better off arguing he was struggling with his sexuality in a family that objected to homosexuality, the attorney argued.

Morrison speculated that Woodward may be denying the obvious because he fears alienating his family, which objects to homosexuality on religious grounds.

Morrison downplayed the prosecution’s “Diary of Hate,” which he said superficially appeared to be “explosive evidence,” but on closer examination is nine or 10 emails he sent to himself, including the most homophobic appearing to have been done while in Texas with his neo-Nazi friend, the attorney argued.

Woodward had a dating app profile for gay men, but it included obviously homophobic and insulting slurs, Morrison said. There was no evidence he exchanged messages with anyone on it, he added.

Morrison said that when the defendant and victim first reconnected on a dating app in June of 2017, Bernstein “super liked” Woodward, which led to the two matching and sparking a cyber-reunion of sorts. The two flirted, but then Woodward “confessed” he wasn’t sincere about it but wanted to see what would happen if he played along.

The two did not reconnect again until Woodward messaged Bernstein again on New Year’s Eve. The two agreed to meet up and Woodward picked Bernstein up at his home and they went over to the park, where the victim was repeatedly stabbed and his body was found about a week later in the shallow grave.

Walker will get a chance at a rebuttal and then jurors will begin deliberations.

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