An Orange County judge temporarily suspended criminal proceedings against Samuel Woodward, accused of stabbing his former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein to death and burying him in a Lake Forest park, after Woodward’s defense attorney said she has concerns about whether he is competent to stand trial.
Two mental health experts — one chosen by the defense, the other by the prosecution — will be assigned by Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger to evaluate Woodward and help determine whether he is capable of understanding the court proceedings and able to assist with his own defense.
Woodward’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Alison Worthington, did not not specify during the public hearing on Friday morning why she believed Woodward was not competent to stand trial.
A week earlier, Judge Menninger at one point during a hearing held a closed court discussion with Worthington and Woodward, and some recent filings by the defense have been made under seal. Woodward was in the courtroom for Friday’s hearing, but did not speak.
Woodward — who is alleged to have ties to a neo-Nazi group — is accused of killing Bernstein when the two former Orange County School of Arts classmates met up during a winter break in January 2018. Prosecutors have alleged that Woodward carried out the slaying at least partly because Bernstein was gay.
After Friday’s hearing, a attorney representing Bernstein’s parents, William Weinberg, said the family is “deeply disappointed” by the suspension of the criminal case but added that they trust the prosecutors. The DA’s office has opposed several past delays of the jury trial.
Woodward’s previous defense attorney, who is no longer involved in the case, described him as having a “serious mental disorder” and issues with his own sexuality. Woodward is believed to have ties to Atomwaffen Division, an armed fascist organization, but it isn’t clear what role, if any, that played in the killing of Bernstein, who was Jewish.
According to testimony by detectives during a 2018 preliminary hearing, Woodward acknowledged picking Bernstein up from his Lake forest home around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 and driving first to a shopping center in Foothill Ranch and then to Borrego Park.
Woodward allegedly told the detectives that while he and Bernstein were sitting in the car at the park, Bernstein kissed Woodward on the lips. Woodward told investigators that he pushed Bernstein away, according to police testimony, and Bernstein apologized.
Woodward claimed Bernstein then walked off into the park and didn’t return, the detectives testified. But prosecutors allege that Woodward actually stabbed Bernstein to death and buried his body in the dirt at the edge of the park.
A well-publicized, six-day search for Bernstein ended with the discovery of his body, which had been stabbed 19 times in the neck and had what detectives described as defensive wounds on his right palm and several fingers.
According to the previous testimony, detectives during a search of Woodward’s family home found a knife with blood on it that was tied through DNA to Bernstein. Investigators also described finding a sleeping bag with what appeared to be blood stains outside Woodward’s home, as well as blood matched through DNA to Woodward and Bernstein in Woodward’s vehicle.
Woodward is scheduled to return to court for a hearing regarding his mental health on Sept. 1. If a judge determines he is competent to stand trial the criminal case would resume. If he is found not competent, a judge could order him sent to a state hospital for treatment.