NEWARK, N.J.-- 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 hours 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.