Samuel Woodward, the neo-Nazi group member accused of murdering Blaze Bernstein, is now being charged with a hate crime for allegedly killing Bernstein because he was gay.
Woodward, who was reported as having trained with the neo-Nazi extremist hate group Atomwaffen Division, had already been charged with first-degree murder over the stabbing death of Bernstein, who was also Jewish.
The two men were former high school classmates.
“This complaint is going to add a hate crime enhancement, accusing Woodward of intentionally committing first-degree murder, due in whole, or in part, due to Blaze’s sexual orientation,” Tony Rackauckas, the Orange County District Attorney, said.
“We will prove that Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay.”
Woodward is accused of fatally stabbing Bernstein, who was studying pre-med, on January 2 of this year.
Bernstein’s body was found a week later not far from his family home.
His parents spoke before a press conference earlier this week.
“Today we suffer an added layer of pain from learning that he was most likely killed because of who he was as a human being,” Bernstein’s father said.
His mother said, “We are people who are suffering because of hate. We live in a world where hate is real and the people that practice it can be hiding in a child’s bedroom in a computer.”
The two men had reconnected via Snapchat while Bernstein was home from college on his winter break.
Rackauckas said Woodward picked Bernstein up from his parents’ house around 11pm on January 2, after which they drove to a shopping centre and then to Borrego Park, where Bernstein’s body was eventually found.
According to a search warrant affidavit, Bernstein attempted to kiss Woodward – after which Woodward says Bernstein left the parked car they were in, while prosecutors say it was at that point that Woodward responded by allegedly stabbing him repeatedly.
California’s state laws do not permit prosecutors to attach a special-circumstance allegation to a murder charge if the victim is targeted because of their gender or sexuality.
Special circumstance murder charges could lead to a death sentence – though the death penalty is currently suspended in California – where on first-degree murder charges, Woodward was facing 26 years imprisonment.
With the added hate crime allegation, however, Woodward faces life in prison if found guilty. He pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder.
The Anti-Defamation League welcomed the prosecutors’ decision to label Bernstein’s death the result of a hate crime.
“This case is a stark reminder of how white supremacist organizations sweep up young recruits into their violent and hateful culture, with potentially deadly consequences,” said national director Jonathan Greenblatt.
“The hate crime enhancement sends a strong message that there are severe penalties for violent crimes motivated by hate.”
California banned the ‘gay panic’ defence in 2014, which here only remains a valid defence in South Australia, although the law is currently under review.
Bernstein’s mother said earlier this year that she was worried her son would become a target because he was gay, Jewish, and small.
“I was concerned sending him out into the big world,” she said. “But at some point you have to let go and they leave the nest and fly. I couldn’t protect him from everything.”