UPenn student’s killing highlights ‘gap’ in protections for LGBTQ community, says politician pushing for new law

Orange County Sheriff's Department/Twitter(LAKE FOREST, Calif.) -- The killing of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein highlights an "important gap" in laws regarding the protection of the LGBTQ community, California Sen. Janet Nguyen said today, as she announced a new state law proposal that would add sexual orientation and gender to the charge of special circumstance murder.

Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, was stabbed to death last month, allegedly by former high school classmate Samuel Woodward. The possibility of sexual orientation as a motive has not been ruled out by investigators, Nguyen said.

In California, killing someone specifically because they are gay is not considered a special circumstance, Nguyen said at a news conference today. Existing protected classes are race, color, religion, nationality and country of origin, said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

The penalty for special circumstance murder is life without possibility of parole or the death penalty, while penalties for first- and second-degree murder are less severe, Rackauckas said.

He didn’t discuss if Bernstein was killed because he was gay, but says the investigation brought the issue to his attention.

Bernstein, 19, was at home in Southern California for winter break when he went missing on Jan. 2. After an extensive search, his body was found on Jan. 9 in the brush surrounding Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said.

Woodward -- Bernstein's former classmate at the Orange County School of the Arts -- was arrested on Jan. 12 and has been charged with murder.

Woodward, 20, allegedly picked up Bernstein from his home the night he went missing, the Orange County District Attorney's Office said. Woodward is accused of stabbing him to death and burying his body in the dirt in the perimeter of the park, the district attorney's office said.

Woodward pleaded not guilty this afternoon. His bail was set at $5 million.

While special circumstance murder cannot be applied in the Woodward case, a hate crime charge has not been ruled out.

"Hate crime doesn't have to be the sole motivation for a charge," Rackauckas explained at the news conference. "If it's a substantial part of the motivation for a murder, then it can be charged."

Rackauckas called it a "glaring omission" that sexual orientation isn’t included in California's special circumstance murder legislation.

"It's time now that California places members of the LGBTQ community as a protected class," he said, adding that Nguyen is "somebody who can build bipartisan support and get the law enacted."

Nguyen said the proposed Senate bill 971, which adds “sexual orientation or gender” to special circumstances legislation, would provide future victims with appropriate justice and send a "strong message" to those who commit crimes against LGBTQ people that they will be "held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

The Bernsteins said in a statement last month, “Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything. We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community. There is still much discovery to be done and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime.”

Woodward's next court appearance is March 2.

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