A California man pleaded not guilty Friday to murdering a beloved Ivy League student, NBC Los Angeles reports.
Prosecutors have charged 20-year-old Samuel Woodward with killing his former high school classmate, Blaze Bernstein, while he was home from college during winter break.
Investigators say Bernstein met up with Woodward on Jan. 2 at a park in Lake Forest near Newport Beach. Search crews found Bernstein’s body a week later in a shallow grave.
Bernstein was stabbed at least 20 times. Woodward told police he grew angry after Bernstein kissed him.
Woodward has been linked to a neo-Nazi group and authorities are looking at whether the killing was a hate crime because Bernstein was gay and Jewish.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas would not tell reporters Friday whether he believed Bernstein was killed because of his sexual orientation, but said the case showed why state law needs to be changed to add gender and sexuality as motivating factors to pursue more serious charges.
State law recognizes special circumstances in murder cases only when they involve religion, race and some other categories; a defendant convicted on such a charge can face the death penalty or life without parole.
Woodward faces a charge of murder with an enhancement for using a knife. He remains in custody without bail. If convicted, Woodward could face up to 26 years in prison, the television station reports.
Bernstein studied psychology in college and had been selected to edit a culinary magazine on campus. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral.
[Feature Photo: Blaze Bernstein/Handout]