NJ man cleared in 2003 attempted flag burning

Mar 30, 2012, 9:08 PM

Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Whenever Declan Devlin got in trouble with the law as a teenager, he usually pleaded guilty to what he’d done. But one accusation would haunt him for nearly a decade, because he knew he would never commit such an act: the burning of an American flag.

Devlin, now 25, was cleared Thursday by the same judge who had convicted him at age 16 for the attempted burning of American flags in a small northern New Jersey town, after another man came forward and admitted he was the culprit.

The incident had taken place on March 25, 2003, against a backdrop of patriotic fervor. Someone tried to ignite a bundle of flags that was in the back of a municipal public works department truck as workers drove around affixing them to lampposts in support of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

Coming less than two years after the 9/11 attacks, the incident sparked a frenzy of negative publicity that raised questions about Devlin’s mental capacity and even suggested he was linked to the Irish Republican Army.

“I was absolutely devastated, and scared, and angry and thinking obviously I didn’t do this, and that’s going to come out,” Devlin recalled in a telephone interview Friday.

Devlin said he had pleaded guilty to other offenses as a teenager that he declined to specify, but he refused in this instance _ even though it wasn’t criminal, but a disorderly persons charge that wouldn’t carry heavy consequences.

“It really tore apart his family and his relationship to the community,” said Ronald Kuby, Devlin’s attorney for the current case. “People in the little town of Madison could deal with teen cigarette smoking, or occasional beer drinking or pot smoking, but the notion that, so soon after 9/11, someone from their community would burn a flag was really upsetting.”

Even though fingerprints on a can of dry gas found at the scene did not match Devlin’s, according to court records, identification by a state’s witness led to his conviction on the charge. Devlin was sentenced to 50 months of community service by state Superior Court Family Division Judge Thomas Critchley, who admonished the teenager and called him ignorant of both “American and human history.”

“I understand we united after 9/11, and I think it was healthy, but people rushed to judgment, and I think it added to the atmosphere and influenced the case,” Devlin said. “The judge said at the time I was ignorant to the principles of America, and didn’t appreciate the country I lived in, and that really upset me, I don’t think it’s fair to say that to a teenager.”

Critchley said during Thursday’s court hearing that he was impressed with Devlin’s persistence in clearing his name.

Phone and email messages left for a spokesman for the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office and for the judge were not returned.

Devlin, who lives in Madison, said he eventually outgrew his juvenile hijinks and built a successful career in real estate in New Jersey and New York City.

But the case still haunted him. He tried unsuccessfully over the years to enlist a lawyer to help him get it reopened, but two recent chance encounters improved his prospects. One was with the nationally known attorney Kuby inside the Manhattan building where both men had offices, and the other was with a friend who had heard that someone else had admitted to the flag burning.

On Thursday, 22-year-old Michael Sullivan of Chatham testified during the court hearing that he had set one flag on fire and tried to ignite others when he was 13. Not following news reports at the time, Sullivan said he never knew that Devlin had been charged. A phone message left for him was not returned Friday.

The statute of limitations has run out on the crime for Sullivan to be prosecuted, and Devlin said he is grateful to him for having the courage to step forward and grant him the peace of mind he has long been seeking.


Follow Samantha Henry at

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed ...
Associated Press

Release of toxic chemicals from derailed tanker cars begins in Ohio

Crews began releasing toxic chemicals into the air from five derailed tanker cars that were in danger of exploding Monday.
22 hours ago
Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-AZ) delivers remarks in the House Chamber during the third day of elections ...
Kevin Stone

Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona to give GOP Spanish rebuttal to Biden speech

Freshman U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona will deliver the Republican Spanish rebuttal to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address Tuesday.
22 hours ago
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)...
Associated Press

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s split from Democrats shows party discord in Arizona

The Democrats' winning formula is in jeopardy ahead of the 2024 election after Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s divorce from the party.
22 hours ago
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)...
Associated Press

US officials offer Congress briefing on Biden, Trump papers

The Biden administration has offered to brief congressional leaders on its investigation into the classified documents.
2 days ago
FILE - Mega Millions lottery tickets and a wager slip are displayed, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Derry...
Arizona Sports

Drawing nears for $700M Powerball prize, 10th biggest in US

Another huge lottery jackpot will be on the line Saturday for players willing to put up $2 vs. daunting odds of actually winning the prize.
3 days ago
Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 04, 2023. The Pentagon a...
Associated Press

US downs suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast

The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites.
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
NJ man cleared in 2003 attempted flag burning