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California man recounts stabbing gay college student during trial for 2018 killing

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A California man charged with killing a gay University of Pennsylvania student testified that he repeatedly stabbed the college sophomore after trying to grab a cellphone he feared had been used to photograph him.

The Orange County Register reports that Samuel Woodward gave the account Thursday during his fourth day testifying in his trial on a charge of murder with an enhancement for a hate crime in the death of Blaze Bernstein. Bernstein was home visiting family in California on winter break six years ago when he went out with Woodward and disappeared. His body was found days later buried in a park.

The question during the trial has not been whether Woodward killed Bernstein but the reasons for the killing and circumstances under which it occurred. Prosecutors allege that Woodward singled out the gay, Jewish college sophomore after joining the violent, anti-gay, antisemitic group known as Atomwaffen Division. Woodward’s lawyer has said he didn’t plan to kill anyone, didn’t hate Bernstein, struggled to form personal relationships due to an autism spectrum disorder and was questioning his own sexuality while growing up in a conservative Catholic family.

The two men attended the same high school in Orange County and connected months before the attack on a dating app, according to testimony from the monthslong trial. They met up one night in January 2018 and went to a park.

Woodward, whose long hair partly covers his face and took long pauses before answering questions, testified that he smoked marijuana and felt something on his leg, then saw his pants were unbuckled and Bernstein had a cellphone, the newspaper reported. He said he began yelling and tried to grab the phone, then took out a pocket knife he was carrying.

“I just kept driving and driving and driving the knife down,” Woodward told the court, adding he felt “an anger like nothing I had ever felt in my whole life” and later smashed the phone.

Woodward will take the stand again Monday for cross-examination by prosecutors, who have alleged that he repeatedly targeted gay men online by reaching out to them and then abruptly breaking off contact while keeping a hateful, profanity-laced journal of his actions. Prosecutors also said they found hate group materials among Woodward’s belongings including a black Atomwaffen mask with traces of blood.

The case took years to go to trial after questions arose about Woodward’s mental state and following multiple changes in defense attorneys. Woodward was deemed competent to stand trial in late 2022.

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