A case of tree murder

Below is part of the transcript of the Rachel Maddow show from last Friday, July 6, 2012.  The story is about an Alabama man accused of “desecrating a venerable object”.  What interests me is that the “venerable object” in this case is a pair of live oak trees on the campus of Auburn University.  I share it here because it is a rare instance where our legal system recognizes the sacrality of an other-than-human life. The trees are still called “objects”, but it’s something at least. (I wonder what other “venerable objects” this law has been enforced to protect in the past.)

MADDOW: The other day in Opelika, Alabama, they tried to pick a jury for the trial of this man. He’s a University of Alabama football fan. He stands accused of criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object. The venerable object in this case is a pair of live oak trees on the campus of Auburn University nearby.

The man accused is an Alabama fan. Auburn and Alabama are rivals. These two oak trees are where generations of Auburn students and fans have gone to celebrate wins by the Auburn football team, particularly those over Alabama.

These are Toomer’s trees, they are called. And team loyalty aside, they are pretty much as venerable an object as you could find in the state of Alabama.

In the first round of questioning in this case about the desecration of these trees, nearly half the potential jurors in the case said they personally had celebrated something about Auburn under those Toomer Oaks. So, that’s a big deal. What an institution Toomer’s trees are.

It is the cultural importance of those trees to Auburn University and Alabama as a state that made so surreal this phone call to a local radio show last year. Listen.


CALLER: The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, because I live 30 miles away and I poisoned the two Toomer`s trees. I put Spike 80DF in them.

PAUL FINEBAUN: Did they die?

CALLER: Do what?

FINEBAUN: Did they die?

CALLER: They`re not dead yet, but they definitely will die.


MADDOW: The man calling into a radio station saying he killed the Toomer oaks with tree poison, with an herbicide. And he did do it or somebody did it at least. It was not an idle boost.

Ever since they learned of the poisoning, Auburn has been trying to save their beloved trees. We reported a year ago on some of their efforts. They removed and replaced the contaminated soil from around the roots. They added activated liquid charcoal to neutralize the effect of the poison. They coated the leaves of the trees with what`s called an anti-transferent (ph) in an effort to keep the trees from drinking in more poison water.

This spring, they injected the trees with sugar, trying to feed the trees, since the trees are now too sick to feed themselves.


The Auburn horticulturist, Gary Keever, says the trees have been as low as 5 percent of their usual foliage. Professor Keever says they are painfully bare, they are in trouble. And if these were any other trees on campus, they would have been cut down already.


MADDOW: Tree murder. So that`s the deal with Auburn`s venerable objects, Toomer`s trees. Gary Keever says they’ve shown no sign of responding to these latest treatments, those injections with sugar. He says he`s not giving up yet, but he`s also too much of a scientist to avoid seeing the obvious outcome here.

Meanwhile, the man who is accused of poisoning the trees has now pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.


It is a case of tree murder. Where it may be impossible to find a jury of 12 people who have not been in love with the murder victim, in love with those trees or at least who do not already believe in their hearts they know who killed those trees.

This is a sports story. This is an Alabama story, may be a crazy old guy story or even a crime story. But what is it is turning into now is a story of profound human attachment beyond what we usually admit to and beyond what makes sense on paper.


One thing I can agree with accused about … he is mentally ill.  Anyone who would do that is mentally ill.  (I’m adding this to my list as reason number 99 why I hate sports.)

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