OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — An attorney for the University of Alabama football fan accused of poisoning two landmark oak trees at rival Auburn renewed calls for a change of venue, saying Wednesday a new jury pool is needed after a student newspaper reported that his client had confessed.
Attorney Everett Wess said before the second day of jury selection started that Harvey Updyke denied telling The Auburn Plainsman that he committed the crime, while prosecutors argued that they had reason to believe the report.
The newspaper said it stands by the article, and the reporter was subpoenaed.
The longtime Alabama fan, who has previously worn crimson ties to court appearances just a few miles from Auburn's campus, is accused of poisoning the century-old trees after the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide during Auburn's 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.
The 130-year-old trees at an entrance to campus show clear signs of poisoning.
Judge Jacob Walker continued with jury selection and denied the defense requests.
"I think right now they are not ripe to be ruled upon," Walker said.
The judge noted that he had instructed jurors interviewed Tuesday to avoid media reports on the case.
"The article has permeated the local media and the national media in respect to the trial," Wess told him.
District Attorney Robbie Treese said investigators had questioned the reporter, Andrew Yawn, and said he had information that hadn't been previously reported.
He said that indicates the report's "veracity is certainly better than what the defense claims." Treese didn't say whether that information was included in the report.
"The defense is claiming it's poisoned the jury pool when they themselves are the source of the poison," Treese said.
The Plainsman quoted Updyke as saying during a break in jury selection Tuesday, "Did I do it? Yes."
"We stand behind Andrew Yawn's reporting on the Updyke confession yesterday afternoon 100 percent. The information gathered was not prompted nor off the record," Plainsman editor Robert Lee said in a statement, adding that the paper isn't asserting his guilt or innocence.
Last year, court documents showed Updyke also admitted to poisoning the trees. They say he acknowledged calling a radio show to say he did it with a herbicide and that he also left a phone message for an Auburn professor claiming knowledge of the poisoning. An attorney for Updyke later said his client told police he didn't poison the trees.
Walker granted Treese's request for a gag order involving everyone in the case except the attorneys.
Prospective jurors were asked Wednesday if they had seen or heard any reports on the case since they were among the 85 selected for the pool. All 85 said they were familiar with the case from the media, and nearly half said they or people close to them had participated in the rolling of the Toomer's Corner trees with toilet paper, a longstanding tradition to celebrate Auburn victories.
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