Blaze Bernstein trial: Jury deliberations continue

After hearing more than two days of closing arguments, jurors began deliberating Tuesday in the trial of the man charged with the hate crime fatal stabbing of a gay former classmate in Foothill Ranch.

Attorney Ken Morrison of the Orange County Public Defender's Office argued Tuesday that his client, Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 26, should not be convicted of murder in the Jan. 3, 2018, killing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein.

Morrison argued for the defendant to be convicted instead of voluntary manslaughter, but acquitted of hate-crime allegations. Jurors may also consider second-degree murder.

Woodward also faces a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a deadly weapon. The hate-crime enhancement alleges Woodward killed Bernstein because of the victim's sexual orientation, not because he was Jewish, though jurors were also given evidence of the defendant's association with a neo-Nazi group to consider a pattern of bigotry.

"He isn't guilty of murder," Morrison argued. "He's guilty of manslaughter."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Blaze Bernstein trial: Samuel Woodward testifies in hate crime trial

Morrison told jurors that his presentation of evidence about the defendant's diagnosis of autism was not an effort to excuse the crime, but to help jurors understand his state of mind -- and for them to reject the hate- crime allegations and accept a lesser-degree of homicide.

"Samuel Lincoln Woodward should be held accountable for what he did," Morrison said. "He should not be held accountable for what he did not do. This case was over-charged."

Morrison characterized his client as someone struggling through life, not understanding until he was 18 that he had autism when it was too late for the usually prescribed interventions. The disorder made it difficult for him to communicate and led to social awkwardness and loneliness, and the late diagnosis made him especially vulnerable to being wooed by a fringe, extremist group like Atomwaffen Division, the defense attorney argued.

The group's attraction was a sense of belonging, a "brotherhood" of "strong men," Morrison argued. Woodward told a defense-hired psychiatric expert, Martha Rogers, that he didn't pay much attention to the group's hateful rhetoric and was buoyed by their positive reinforcement, Morrison argued.

Woodward grew disillusioned with the group, he told Rogers, after a two-month excursion in the summer of 2017 to Texas with the man who lured him into the group, when he ran out of money for food and a motel, Morrison said.

Woodward and Bernstein attended the Orange County School of the Arts together for four years. Bernstein graduated after six years at the school and went on to become a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Woodward, meanwhile, transferred to Corona Del Mar High School where he graduated and went on to Cal State Channel Islands before dropping out in his second semester.

Morrison argued that though Woodward and Bernstein did not interact much when they were classmates, there were projects they worked on together and that Woodward considered him a "chill guy." Morrison said the defendant was surprised to find out Bernstein was gay when they reconnected on a dating app in June 2017, and Woodward grew to admire how the victim was comfortable with his sexual orientation while the defendant struggled with his own.

"Blaze Bernstein was in a lot of ways intimidating because he had qualities (Woodward) thought he lacked," Morrison said. "Sam was questioning all these things, looking for strong men, something he aspired to be."

The long, shaggy-haired and bearded Woodward spent five days testifying during the trial, often taking up to 30 seconds to respond to yes or no questions.

Woodward reached out to Bernstein hours after a long text-exchange conversation with his big brother's best friend, Dylan Gronendyke, on New Year's Day in 2018. As Woodward complained that he could not establish any meaningful relationships and would even leave the house and go to a parking lot alone just to give his parents the impression he went out with friends, Gronendyke encouraged him to return to college and to not give up trying to make friends.

Nearly a day passed before Bernstein responded to Woodward, and the two agreed to meet up the night of Jan. 2, 2018. Woodward stuffed snacks and drinks and marijuana into a sleeping bag and picked up Bernstein, who directed the two to Borrego Park, where the victim's mother said he had many lifelong memories, such as playing soccer as a youth.

Woodward testified he took two hits off a heady strain of marijuana and felt he was nodding off until he felt a strange sensation on his legs and immediately thought he had gotten too relaxed and urinated on himself as he had done previously.

When he snapped to, Woodward testified, he realized his pants were undone and the victim had his hand on his groin. Bernstein also appeared to be photographing or video recording the encounter, he testified.

This triggered panic in Woodward, who said he was in "mortal terror" his family, who objected to homosexuality on religious grounds, would find out. He said the "look" on his father's face alone could be so upsetting he struggled to get the phone away from Bernstein, who, the defendant claimed, was saying words to the effect that he would "out" Woodward, who had a reputation in high school for homophobia.

When he could not get the phone, Woodward said he snapped and repeatedly stabbed Bernstein and then smashed the phone.

Woodward said he dug a shallow grave with his hands and left the body in the park.

When Bernstein failed to show for a dental appointment, which was unusual, and could not be contacted, his worried parents began searching for clues and contacted authorities. The victim's body was found Jan. 9, 2018, in an area of the park that had been scoured previously, but a recent rain made it easier to see him, Walker said.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker argued to jurors that the evidence points to Woodward planning to attack Bernstein in a "ceremonial" killing to win the prestige of the neo-Nazi group. She said he wore a sweater with a skull image on it to "strike fear" into the victim, and that it had Bernstein's blood spattered on it after the attack.

When Bernstein's panicked parents went through their missing son's social media looking for clues, they called Woodward, who lied to them about what had happened to their son. Walker said Woodward also began searching for information on DNA and even got a haircut to change his appearance while the search for Bernstein made headlines.

"The abundance of evidence here is overwhelming," Walker said.

She added, "The reason we're here is because of the defendant's actions."

She brushed aside Morrison's arguments that Bernstein had betrayed Woodward's requests to keep it quiet that the two matched on the dating app. Walker said Bernstein was rightly "shocked" to see Woodward seeking males on the dating app and sent a link to his public profile to a few fellow classmates from the school of the arts.

Walker said Bernstein kept his promise not to share the details of their conversations with others.

"Blaze Bernstein is not here to defend himself against these allegations," Walker said.

She added that for jurors to reject first-degree murder, "You have to believe a liar."