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Samuel Woodward testifies in Orange County Superior Court on Thursday, June 13, 2024 in Santa Ana. Woodward is accused of stabbing his former Orange County School of the Arts classmate Blaze Bernstein to death more than six years ago and burying his body near a Foothill Ranch park. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG, Pool)
Samuel Woodward testifies in Orange County Superior Court on Thursday, June 13, 2024 in Santa Ana. Woodward is accused of stabbing his former Orange County School of the Arts classmate Blaze Bernstein to death more than six years ago and burying his body near a Foothill Ranch park. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG, Pool)
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Samuel Woodward, a onetime Orange County School of the Arts student on trial for the 2018 killing of former classmate Blaze Bernstein, took the stand for the first time on Thursday afternoon, June 13 as his attorney seeks to counter allegations that the slaying was a hate crime.

A bearded Woodward — his long dark hair covering most of his face — testified for about two hours in a Santa Ana courtroom before his trial ended for the day, during which time he answered questions about his family background and his difficulties communicating with others.

The early testimony did not touch on many of the major issues in the case, including Bernstein’s killing, Woodward’s ties to a racially motivated hate group, Woodward’s creation of what prosecutors have described as a “hate diary” or what Woodward’s attorney has described as Woodward’s struggles with his sexuality.

Woodward appeared calm on the stand, though he often paused mid-sentence or before beginning his answers and at-times spoke in a near-mumble or seemed to jumble words together, leading both the judge and the court reporter to ask him to repeat himself. Several times Woodward’s attorney also reminded him to pull his long hair back so the jurors could see his face.

There was no repeat of any courtroom outbursts .

, whose body was discovered buried — with more than 20 stab wounds — at the edge of a Lake Forest Park . , which if found true by the jury would lead to a much longer prison sentence.

Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison began his questioning of Woodward by asking about his relationship with his parents and his older brother. Some witnesses have alleged that the father and brother used homophobic comments aimed at Woodward and that he may have been abused.

During the testimony, Woodward described his brother saying “some things to me” and recalled fights between the two siblings but said he didn’t see it as unusual. He described his brother as “antagonizing” him when they were younger.

“What level of conflict, if any, do you remember being in the household growing up?” the defense attorney asked.

“Sometimes it felt like a lot,” Woodward replied. “Sometimes it didn’t feel like much at all. My memory varies.”

Woodward, who is on the Autism spectrum, acknowledged having trouble communicating with other people.

“It was an issue with how I came across to other people, how I spoke,” Woodward said. “I guess I just sounded different. I guess I just had certain issues, issues communicating.”

Woodward is accused of killing Bernstein while Bernstein, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, was home visiting his parents during winter break. .

Both the prosecution and defense have described Woodward growing up in a conservative, religious family that was not accepting of homosexuality. Both sides acknowledge he later dropped out of college to join Atomwaffen Division, a Neo-Nazi group.

The prosecution alleges that Woodward, then 20, was driven by anti-gay and antisemitic beliefs to kill 19-year-old Bernstein, who was gay. The defense has countered that Woodward struggled with his own sexuality and argued the killing has nothing to do with any deep-seated hate.

Woodward’s testimony is eventually expected to outline, in his words, what happened the night he killed Bernstein. At the outset of the trial, Woodward’s attorney while promising his client would take the stand also warned jurors that Woodward’s mental state has deteriorated during the more than five years he has spent in local lockup awaiting trial.

On Thursday, Woodward’s testimony ended with questions about a brief time he spent living in Texas before he moved back in with his parents in Newport Beach.

Other witnesses — — previously testified that Woodward moved to Texas to train with the extremist group. But in his own testimony on Thursday, Woodward didn’t mention Atomwaffen, instead saying he moved to Texas after a friend told him there were plenty of jobs available.

“Was that consistent with the opportunity you found?” the defense attorney asked.

“No, there were some places that would hold interviews that were hiring, but they seldom actually hired,” Woodward said. “Some of them just weren’t hiring easily.”

Asked why he moved back to California — months before killing Bernstein — Woodward said he “thought it was time to basically head back home, spend some time at home, recuperate, (and) make back any money I lost in Texas.”

Woodward in often explicit entries in an online “diary” described matching up with gay men on dating websites and “ghosting” or scaring them. In one entry he wrote “They think they are going to be hate-crimed and it scares the (expletive) out of them.”

Jurors have also been shown at-times-apparently-flirtatius online messages between Woodward and Bernstein. Bernstein told Woodward he would keep those messages a secret, though he shared them with other friends, according to testimony during the trial.

Woodward’s testimony is scheduled to resume on Monday morning.

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