Sad we’ll miss the courtroom circus

Published 3:15pm Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It’s hard to express my disappointment that Harvey Updyke Jr. pled guilty and avoided a trial on charges of tree-murder in what promised to be judicial circus scene right here in Elmore County.
It was going to be the biggest trial the state’s seen since Milton McGregor and his buddies strolled freely out of the federal courthouse last summer. And it was going to be right up the road.
All of the state’s major papers and TV stations — probably ESPN and Sports Illustrated — and likely some other big time news outlets, were all making plans to converge on our very own Elmore County Judicial Complex.
I was picturing barricaded crowds of angry Tiger fans. Aubie weeping silently next to some guy grabbing a smoke before a court appearance. I bet some enterprising Auburn student would’ve skipped class to keep vigil dressed as one of the fabled rolled oaks. And that doesn’t even count the defendant, who was as stable and predictable as an early summer whirlwind.
But it all was not to be.
Updyke pleaded guilty to criminal damage of an agricultural facility, a Class-C felony included in the indictment. The judge sentenced him to three years, meaning he’ll have to serve the time at a Department of Corrections facility, though he’s unlikely to serve more than six or eight months.
As an aside, I have to note that Updyke’s sentence for poisoning trees is triple the sentences handed down to three different men who have killed people while driving a boat drunk in this county. But that’s another travesty for another day.
Back to Harvey. After his release from jail, he faces five years of supervised probation, including a nightly curfew of 7 p.m. He’ll be banned from attending any collegiate athletic event.
He’ll also be prohibited from ever again setting foot on Auburn University property. Considering the intense feelings Auburn fans had for those trees, I think such a ban would be self-imposed, if he valued his life and limbs (pun not intended).
“We have a significant number of violent felonies awaiting trial in Lee County,” said Auburn DA Robbie Treese, “and I could not in good conscience justify financing a three-week trial merely to arrive at no better a resolution.”
But what of the lessons of this whole affair? Are all trees wrongly struck down in their prime now to be considered crime victims, complete with APBs and giant-sized headlines?
Oh, just the special ones? OK special to whom? Granted, Auburn Nation’s pretty big and the tree-rolling thing is pretty universal among the Tigers’ faithful, but three years in prison?
In high school, there was a fairly impressive river oak that dried up and died soon after I wrapped our old Pontiac Bonneville around it … anyone know the statute of limitations on tree murder?
Or is my lack of boisterous, incoherent comments on a major regional radio show a defense. Or maybe it’s a missed opportunity, since Updyke originally pleaded not guilty by reason of mental defect? And that call to Finebaum’s show to brag about the thing seems pretty defective from a mental aspect.
I’ve seen the rolling from both sides. That night in 1999, I watched a near riot break out when some college buddies tried to add crimson tissue paper to the mix after Alabama’s first win at Jordan-Hare. And in 2003, I worked at a paper on College Street during Auburn’s bittersweet undefeated season, and saw Tuberville’s last great team denied the title they deserved. It was a fun tradition and one that even I, an Alabama graduate, am sorry to see so drastically altered.
The tree saga is one of those “only in Alabama” controversies, in which passions for football drove a man to previously unimaginable lengths.
I was impressed at the behavior of Alabama fans through all this. I don’t recall hearing a single one defend Updyke’s actions, and I’d bet a jury packed with Crimson Tide fans would be just as hard on him as one that followed “guilty” with the words “War Eagle.”
If only the fans of a football team had a method to excise a troublesome member from our fan base, like an excommunication from the Catholic Church.
Updyke’s attorney says he’s already served much of the time he was sentenced to, and just has a couple months left to serve.
Then the curfew kicks in, along with the complete ban on collegiate sporting events.
But it left me wondering, what if that’s too specific. What if “Al from Dadeville” substituted his college football obsession with one for high school football?
He could be the most rabid Dadeville Tigers fan ever. If things went wrong for the Tigers, would Elmore County High, Reeltown or Horseshoe Bend need to worry for their cherished places?
Really, there are no great lessons to be taken away from the Updyke affair. We’ll still be crazy about football around these parts, and probably one day another fan, on one side or another, will go too far.
There really are more important things to devote the judicial systems of two counties to prosecuting, as Auburn’s DA said.
But man am I sorry we missed out on that media circus. It was going to be great.

David D. Goodwin is political editor of The Wetumpka Herald. Contact him at

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