Fire and explosion at UNC’s Davie Poplar
The man charged with setting fire to UNC-Chapel Hill’s historic Davie Poplar tree was found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday.
Joshua Daniel Edwards, 25, will be committed to Central Regional Hospital in Butner after defense and the prosecution experts found he has schizoaffective disorder, which caused delusions and hallucinations, Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour said.
Edwards was charged with six felony counts of malicious use of explosives to inflict injury, malicious use of explosives to damage property, assembling a weapon of mass destruction, setting fire to grass or grassland, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and filing a false police report.
He is accused of setting fire to a backpack and a guitar beside UNC’s landmark Davie Poplar on Nov. 2, 2017, and walking away. UNC Professor Dan Reichart saw the fire and tried to put it out, but a camping fuel canister in the backpack exploded, burning his arms and face.
The defense’s forensic evaluation concluded that Edwards “was incapable of distinguishing right and wrong in a reality-based fashion due to the effects of psychosis,” said Natasha Adams, his attorney.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman said a state’s expert made a similar conclusion.
Nieman, who didn’t challenge the motion that Edwards be found insane, said he initially saw the case as an act of domestic terrorism that affected thousands of students, faculty and staff after a campus wide alert went out and police cordoned off a section of campus.
“We were seeking convictions and prison time,” he said. “However, given the reports that we received I do recognize that it would be difficult for the state to prevail over a defense of insanity.”
The fire scorched the Davie Poplar, but the tree survived.
The tulip poplar, named for Revolutionary War general and university founder William Richardson Davie, is more than 300 years old. That makes it older than the university, which was founded in 1789.
Edwards also is accused of telling UNC police about another device in his car in Carrboro. The threat forced Carrboro police to evacuate the downtown area for several hours, but no device was found, police said.