By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Tuesday in the trial of an avid University of Alabama sports fan charged with criminal mischief and unlawful property damage for poisoning 130-year-old oak trees near rival Auburn University's campus in 2010.
Auburn fans for decades have gathered to celebrate football victories under the beloved oak trees at Toomer's Corner.
Prosecutors said Harvey Updyke, 63, put a powerful herbicide on the soil beneath the trees shortly after 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.
Updyke, a former Texas police officer, called in to a nationally syndicated sports radio program to brag about his actions. He has since publicly apologized to Auburn fans.
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 trees at Toomer's Corner have lost an estimated 80 percent of their canopy in the past year as a result of the poisoning, but the true extent of the damage remains unknown, according to Gary Keever, an Auburn University horticulturist.
The contaminated soil has been replaced and active charcoal has been applied to the roots. Keever said the company that produces the herbicide, Spike 80DF, has indicated it could take up to seven years for all traces of it to disappear.
Updyke's lawyer, Everett Wess, said his primary concern is getting a fair and impartial jury in a case that stirs emotions in Alabama. The trial is being held in Opelika, Alabama.
"We're looking for jurors who can separate facts from emotion and bias," Wess said.
Wess filed a notice with the court last week citing his client's "fragile" health, saying Updyke suffers from chronic diabetes and recurrent fainting spells.
The University of Alabama distanced itself from Updyke after the poisoning of the oaks was confirmed, banning him from the campus. In May, Updyke was removed by university police from the Southeastern Conference's softball tournament for violating the ban.
"Mr. Updyke has no affiliation with the University of Alabama and does not represent the institution in any way," university officials said in a statement after the tournament.
Opening statements in the case could begin as early as Wednesday. (Editing by Will Dunham)