Nearly a year and a half after the oak trees at Auburn University were reportedly poisoned by a fan of a rival Alabama football team, the criminal case against the mab is finally moving forward. Jury selection began this week in the case against 63-year-old Harvey Updyke, who has previously admitted to treating the trees with the herbicide Spike 80DF but has plead not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
Updyke is charged with criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object.
The 130-year-old trees at Toomer's Corner, named after a nearby drug store, are traditionally draped with toilet paper by Auburn fans when the football team wins a game. Auburn and the University of Alabama have a long-standing sports rivalry that has grown even more heated in recent years. The poisoning was discovered after Updike reportedly called a sports radio show on Jan. 27, 2011, and said he had doused the trees.
Jury selection took place on June 19, just a few miles from Auburn's campus, and the Associated Press reports that 41 of the 85 jury candidates said they had either visited or seen the Toomer's Corner trees in the months since the poisoning. Thirty-nine of the candidates said they had participated in the traditional post-game celebrations under the trees. Ten candidates said that they or their spouse worked for Auburn University.
Updyke's attorney, Everett Weiss, argued on Wednesday that the trial should be moved to a different venue. This came after Updyke again confessed to the crime on Tuesday, this time to a reporter from the student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman. Weiss denies the confession, but the paper stands by its story.
Updyke also told the Plainsman that he has lost 62 pounds since he was first arrested. He complained that he is suffering from a variety of ailments and nearly passed out on Tuesday. His wife Elva said, "I guarantee he won’t last the trial without something happening."
Plainsman reporter Andrew Yawn has since been subpoenaed to testify at the trial.
Circuit Judge Jacob Walker denied a request to move the trial, but he did impose a gag order preventing further communications with the media by anyone other than the attorneys representing each side.
The Toomer's oaks are still hanging on, thanks to months of work by Auburn University staff members. Horticulturist Gary Keever said earlier this week that one of the trees only has about 20 percent of its normal foliage remaining.
Jury selection continues today.
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