By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - A judge abruptly halted the trial on Thursday of an avid University of Alabama sports fan accused of poisoning two 130-year-old oak trees near rival Auburn University's campus, saying the jury pool had been tainted.
Harvey Updyke, 63, faces charges of criminal mischief and unlawful property damage in connection with the poisoning of the beloved trees at Toomer's Corner, where Auburn fans have gathered for decades to celebrate football victories.
His trial in Opelika, Alabama, was delayed before a jury could be seated after the judge hearing the case determined that potential jurors had learned of a media report this week that quoted Updyke appearing to admit to the crime.
Circuit Judge Jacob Walker issued the order halting the trial two days after a student newspaper published what it said was Updyke's unsolicited confession to the poisoning.
Andrew Yawn, community editor for The Auburn Plainsman, interviewed Updyke during a break from the first day of jury selection on Tuesday and later published a story in which the defendant was quoted as saying, "Did I do it? Yes."
Walker said he reached his decision to stop the trial after speaking with at least 10 potential jurors who had knowledge of the published account.
Yawn has stopped reporting on the trial and could be called to testify once proceedings resume.
"We had a very unusual set of circumstances," Walker said in his ruling.
The judge said he would consider a defense motion for a venue change "at a later date" because he was convinced Updyke would not receive a fair trial in Lee County where the incident took place.
Walker said the flurry of media coverage surrounding the trial could make it difficult to seat an impartial jury anywhere in the state.
Updyke, a former Texas police officer, is accused of poisoning the oaks shortly after the 2010 rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn and then bragging anonymously about the deed on a nationally syndicated sports radio talk show.
He has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of criminal mischief and unlawful property damage, as well as two misdemeanor counts of "desecrating a venerated object." If convicted, Updyke faces up to 10 years in prison on each felony charge and up to one year and a $2,000 fine on each misdemeanor count.
The Auburn Tigers football team defeated the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in November 2010, setting the stage for Auburn's undefeated national championship season.
The trees at Toomer's Corner have lost an estimated 80 percent of their canopy in the past year as a result of being poisoned by a powerful herbicide, but the true extent of the damage remains unknown.
Updyke has apologized repeatedly to Auburn fans, but stopped short of admitting responsibility for the poisoning until this week's story in the student paper.
Everett Wess, Updyke's attorney, said no date had been set for the change-of-venue motion arguments.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)