Accused Toomer's Oaks poisoner Harvey Updyke reportedly confesses guilt to student newspaper in the midst of jury selection

jerickson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 19, 2012 

OPELIKA, Ala. — The trial of Harvey Updyke, the man accused of poisoning the historic oaks at Toomer’s Corner, began Tuesday with the start of a jury selection process that will last into today.

But Updyke may have thrown a wrench into the process before the actual trial even begins.

Updyke, 63, reportedly confessed to poisoning the oaks with Spike 80DF after the 2010 Iron Bowl to a Andrew Yawn, a reporter for the Auburn Plainsman, the school’s student newspaper, during a lunch break.

“Did I do it?” the Plainsman quoted Updyke as saying. “Yes.”

A sheriff’s deputy prevented fellow reporters from interviewing Updyke as he left the courtroom, but Updyke’s attorney, Everett Wess, said he was not aware of the interview after leaving the court following Tuesday’s voir dire.

“I don’t have any knowledge of that,” Wess said. “I have no knowledge that he talked to anyone.”

Wess said he would investigate the reports and see what happened.

“I’m a little taken aback,” Wess said. “He’s been here most of the day. I don’t know when he would have had time to give an extensive interview.”

Updyke’s reported confession could cast an air of confusion on the trial. Updyke also told the Plainsman if Wess knew his client was talking about the case, the attorney would likely drop Updyke as a client.

But the prospective jurors were instructed by Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob Walker to refrain from reading or watching anything about the case, meaning that they would not see Updyke’s reported confession tonight.

A pool of 85 potential jurors was asked Tuesday about their ties to Auburn University, their college football allegiances and how much they have heard and read about the case, which has attracted national attention.

Because of the case’s high-profile nature — the incident has been featured prominently in national media and on ESPN’s documentary Roll Tide/War Eagle—most jurors indicated they already have a basic knowledge of the case in voir dire.

Early in the process, Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob Walker asked the jury pool if they had already heard or read about the case.

Every juror indicated that they already had some level of knowledge about the case.

“I heard about it when it happened, both on TV and in the media,” one juror said. “I think everybody has.”

Roughly half of the jurors indicated that either they or their family members have ties to Auburn University. A majority of the jurors also indicated they have ties to Toomer’s Corner, and roughly half indicated that they have rolled Toomer’s Corner.

Seven potential jurors are current employees of Auburn University. Three have family members employed by Auburn. Potential jurors were also asked if they had seen coverage of the case on ESPN’s Roll Tide/War Eagle, TV or the Paul Finebaum show, and if Updyke’s status as an Alabama fan would cloud their judgment.

Five jurors indicated in voir dire that they already believe Updyke is guilty of poisoning the trees.

Updyke has pled not guilty for reasons of mental disease or defect to two counts of felony criminal mischief, two counts of desecrating a venerable object and two counts of an Alabama law that forbids the damaging, vandalization or theft of any property on or from an animal or crop facility.

The trial was expected to last as long as two weeks, another factor that could limit the jury pool. Roughly 20 of the jurors indicated that they would not be able to serve for that long.

Even so, the trial expected to strike a jury sometime today, barring more unforeseen complications.

“Some jurors have been stricken for cause, some jurors who have been stricken for length of trial,” Wess said. “And we have some who are on the panel right now, although we still have preemptory strikes.”

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