published Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Judge moves trial of ’Bama fan in Auburn tree case

OPELIKA, Ala. — The location of the trial will be moved for a University of Alabama fan charged with poisoning the famed Toomer’s Corner oak trees at Auburn University.

Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker III, in a three-page order Wednesday that cited extensive media coverage of the case, transferred Harvey Updyke’s trial from Opelika to Wetumpka, located in Elmore County north of Montgomery.

The change came after prosecutors dropped their opposition to a request by Updyke’s lawyers to move the trial away from Lee County, where many people attend or work at Auburn. The defense cited the potential difficulty of getting a fair trial so close to the university.

Walker’s order said the trial would begin April 8 as previously scheduled despite the move. He called Elmore “the nearest county free from prejudice” about the case.

Updyke, 64, has pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect to charges of poisoning the trees during Auburn’s successful bid for the national championship in the 2010 football season. He is jailed because Walker revoked his bond last month.

Walker halted an initial attempt to try Updyke last summer in Lee County after Auburn’s student newspaper published a story in which it reported that Updyke confessed outside the courtroom to poisoning the trees. The defense said the report was wrong, but it still received wide media coverage.

“During this process it became evident that several of the jurors that had been qualified for possible selection had been ‘tainted’ by the news story when other individuals had discussed the case with them,” Walker said in his order. The judge said he was moving the cases because of what happened during the first trial attempt and prosecutors’ lack of opposition.

Updyke is charged with criminal mischief, desecrating a venerated object and damaging agriculture. His bond was revoked because of his September arrest after allegedly making a threatening remark to workers at a Lowe’s store in Hammond, La., but lawyers contend he did nothing wrong.

Auburn fans traditionally cover the Toomer’s Corner trees with toilet paper after a big win, but the oaks are all but dead. The university plans to replace them after the spring football game.

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