OPELIKA, Ala. – Nearly half of the prospective jurors in the trial of an Alabama fan accused of poisoning two trees at the famed Toomer's Corner next to Auburn University said they, close friends or family have participated in the celebratory rolling of the oaks with toilet paper after Tigers victories.
Eighty-five candidates filled Judge Jacob Walker's Lee County courtroom a few miles from Auburn's campus on Tuesday, the first day of jury selection, which resumes Wednesday morning.
Forty-one of the possible jurors said they had visited or seen the century-old trees since the poisoning and 39 said they or people close to them had taken part in the celebrations at Toomer's Corner, a long-held tradition for Auburn fans after victories. That had included hurling toilet paper into them.
Among the questions submitted by defendant Harvey Updyke's attorneys: whether potential jurors would "make a decision based upon the defendant being a University of Alabama sports fan."
None of the potential jurors questioned Tuesday morning said they would, but a handful indicated they believed Updyke is guilty.
"I'm convinced that he did it," one woman said.
Another said, "I feel that he did it. Obviously he took part of something that was an offense."
Updyke is accused of poisoning the trees at an entrance to campus after Auburn beat the Crimson Tide during the Tigers' 2010 national title season. The 63-year-old has pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect on charges that include criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object.
Court documents filed last year said Updyke admitted calling a radio show to say he poisoned the historic trees with a herbicide and leaving a phone message for an Auburn professor claiming knowledge of the poisoning. But an attorney for Updyke later said his client told police he didn't poison the trees.
Updyke, who has worn crimson ties to previous appearances, was dressed in a neutral gray shirt and tie. He arrived at the courthouse with his wife Elva, who sat behind the defense table throughout the day.
Jurors were asked about their allegiances as fans, and most clearly root for Auburn.
When the judge asked if they had read or seen reports about the highly publicized case, all but one of the potential jurors signaled yes.
That person, an elderly woman, later told the judge she "made a mistake."
"I did hear it on the news," she said.
Seven of them indicated they worked for Auburn University and three said their spouses did.
Defense attorney Everett Wess said some jury candidates were stricken for cause, and others because of conflicts with the trial expected to last two weeks. He said selection might continue until late in the week.
"We are talking, we are getting information," Wess said. A sheriff's deputy escorted Updyke from the building, shielding him from reporters.
The 130-year-old trees are clearly ailing and Auburn is trying to save them.
University horticulturist Gary Keever said this week the tree closest to College Street has lost most of the foliage produced in the spring and that 80 percent of the canopy lacks foliage. He has been subpoenaed for the trial.