Many Madison residents knew Declan Devlin was the teen on trial nine years ago for burning an American flag on Main Street, even though his name was never mentioned in news coverage of the case because he was only 16.
Word gets around, and the fact Devlin, a borough resident, was found guilty of a crime he did not commit haunted him ever since, said Lea Spiess, Devlin's attorney, who successfully argued to have to the charge against Devlin cleared last week in light of a confession from a Chatham man who admitted igniting the flag—a small one on a stick that was sticking out of a flower bed in front of —when he was 13.
The Chatham man wasn't aware that someone else was arrested for the crime and learned of the case years later through a mutual acquaintance of his and Devlin's.
In a hearing last Thursday, Devlin was cleared of the disorderly conduct charge by state Superior Court Family Division Judge Thomas Critchley, the same judge who found Devlin guilty in the 2003 bench trial and sentenced him to time served—three days in juvenile detention—and 50 hours of community service.
Spiess said the law office was intrigued when Devlin approached them about taking on his case.
"It was unique to us," she said. The office doesn't ordinarily take cases in New Jersey. Additionally, it was a juvenile delinquency matter that was to be expunged.
"In terms of legal consequences, it didn't have any at this point," said Spiess, who works for the Law Office of Ronald Kuby.
Ronald Kuby told The Associated Press the flag burning case tore apart Devlin's relationship to the community.
"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," he said.
Devlin was found guilty largely based on the testimony of witnesses who identified him, though there were discrepancies in their descriptions. Fingerprints found on a gas container did not match Devlin's. The Chatham man said in a court document he used the container to douse the flag and then threw the flag when the flame was too big. He didn't see where it landed and ran when someone called out to him, he said in a court document.