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Case Closed, But Not Debate

By Joline Gutierrez Krueger And Martin Salazar
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writers
    A University of New Mexico student says his behavior was "slightly overzealous" when he ripped up a Mexican flag on campus last September.
    A Metro Court jury decided Wednesday that his behavior was also illegal.
    And hours after the six-person jury convicted Peter Lynch, 31, of misdemeanor criminal damage to property for the flag flap, the debate over whether he was patriot or lawbreaker— or whether the whole incident was blown out of proportion— raged on across the UNM campus and on local talk radio.
    Lynch said he was shocked.
    "I'm really kind of floored that I was convicted in America," he said.
    In a call later to KKOB-AM radio talk show host Jim Villanucci, Lynch said he is through with the incident and the state.
    "I don't feel welcome in this state anymore, and I feel really bad about that. It's a beautiful state here," Lynch said on the air. "After my six months of probation is completed with no other unknown caveats to this coming up, I want to go. I want to be somewhere other than here."
    On campus, reactions were mixed.
    "It seems like they used this as an issue rather than someone who broke the law," said Joe Romero, 21 and a UNM art studio major. "It seemed like everyone's emotions got the better of them."
    That, Lynch said, may have been what happened to him the day he pulled down a Mexican flag from a pole in front of the UNM administration building Sept. 17. Lynch ripped the flag in two as a crowd goaded him on.
    Lynch has said he did so because it was flying unaccompanied by the U.S. flag— a breach in flag protocol and, he said, an attack on the very symbolism of the U.S. flag.
    "This was not a hate crime. It never was," Lynch's attorney, John D'Amato, told the court. "This was to preserve the integrity of the American flag."
    The incident occurred 72 hours after Lynch was discharged from the U.S. Air Force after eight years of service, D'Amato said.
    And it happened after Lynch tried to remedy the breach of etiquette by contacting officials at UNM and the Army ROTC, who did nothing, D'Amato said.
    "Not one person that you heard testify took responsibility for the protection of the flag," D'Amato said.
    But prosecutors argued the issue was not patriotism or protocol.
    "No one is on trial today for being a bad American," Assistant District Attorney Anthony Long told jurors. "Somebody is on trial today for destroying property."
    Jurors apparently agreed, convicting Lynch within 30 minutes of receiving the case.
    Metro Court Judge Clyde DeMersseman sentenced Lynch to six months of supervised probation, 48 hours of community service and restitution in the form of a replacement flag.
    DeMersseman also ordered Lynch into anger management counseling, saying "there may be issues between Mr. Lynch and behavioral control."
    Long reported to the court Wednesday that Lynch had a previous felony conviction in Arizona for aggravated assault.
    DeMersseman deferred Lynch's sentence Wednesday, meaning the case will be dismissed if he successfully completes his probation.
    He had faced as much as six months in jail and a fine of $500. Prosecutors had asked for 200 hours of community service.
    DeMersseman said that in rendering the lesser sanctions he considered that Lynch had honorably served his country and that he appeared to be motivated by patriotism.
    But the judge also acknowledged that what Lynch had done was a criminal act that deeply hurt others, especially the owner of the Mexican flag, El Centro de la Raza, one of UNM's ethnic centers.
    "This flag, anybody's flag, is more than a piece of cloth," DeMersseman said.
    La Raza officials have said the flag was an irreplaceable gift from a former student.
    Two messages left Wednesday for El Centro director Veronica Mendez-Cruz weren't returned.
    But UNM student Brenda Loya, who is actively involved with El Centro, said the verdict was fitting.
    "I'm not really either happy or upset. It's more my concern that underlying his action, there was another message," Loya said, referring to Internet postings made before Lynch ripped the Mexican flag.
    Lynch's attorney said his client didn't write the postings, which refer to Mexicans as "wet-backs" and talk about driving a semi through protesting Mexicans.
    "It's beyond Lynch," Loya said. "To focus on Lynch would be wrong because he did have his motive, and I think they were pretty strong motives, as well. To me the important part is the underlying mentality and feeling that arose from this. Peter Lynch is not part of my worries anymore."
    UNM spokeswoman Susan McKinsey declined comment.
    While Lynch admitted to being "slightly overzealous," he remained resolute that his actions were righteous.
    "I feel strongly in the colors of the United States of America," he said.
    Lynch said he attempted to present La Raza officials with a new Mexican flag shortly after the incident but that his offer was rejected.
    He has already agreed to pay for another replacement Mexican flag through an agreement with UNM to maintain his good standing as a student.
    Under the agreement, he remains on probation with the school through May 31, 2009, D'Amato said.
    Lynch said he does not expect to appeal Wednesday's verdict.
    "I'm willing to accept the court's judgment," he said.