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Feds want to prosecute suicidal vet

The federal government broke a promise, according to the lawyer for a Navy veteran facing criminal firearms charges after he called for help on what is promoted as a confidential suicide prevention hotline.

The government alleges the ex-petty officer from Blacksburg committed four felonies by making a homemade gun using a pipe and a shotgun shell. The veteran’s lawyer claims the government is violating due process by using information from his call to prosecute him.

Mental health professionals suggest the charges against Sean Duvall could hamper national suicide prevention efforts by creating doubts about whether calls for help will be considered confidential.

Duvall, a Persian Gulf War veteran, was despondent and contemplating suicide after being evicted from his apartment in June, according to his motion to dismiss filed in Roanoke federal court. He wandered the streets of Blacksburg, sometimes sleeping on the ground.

Among his few belongings, Duvall carried a homemade gun consisting of a short length of pipe with a cap allowing a nail to serve as a firing pin for a shotgun shell. Duvall built the device for the sole purpose of taking his own life, according to his lawyer.

On June 8, Duvall called the Veterans Crisis Line, billed as a “confidential toll-free hotline” by the Department of Veterans Affairs. He explained he had a device for committing suicide and he “really needed help,” the motion read. He said he wanted to hand over the device for someone to safely dispose of it.

Duvall gave the device to the police officer who responded, along with his backpack and what was to be a final note to his family.

The call for help was a success story for Duvall’s state of mind. He was released after a few days at a psychiatric hospital. According to his motion, he is now on medication and sees a counselor and a psychiatrist regularly. He has a new job and a new apartment.

The same call for help also brought trouble. Duvall first was charged with a misdemeanor – carrying a concealed weapon. Then the federal authorities stepped in.

Duvall now faces four federal felony charges with a possible punishment of 40 years in prison. All four charges are based on the one crude homemade shotgun. Duvall is accused of possessing an unlawful destructive device, possessing an unregistered firearm, manufacturing a destructive device and possessing a destructive device without a serial number.

Duvall’s lawyer, Randy V. Cargill with the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Roanoke, was blunt in asking a judge to dismiss the charges. “It is wrong to break a promise,” he wrote in the motion to dismiss.

Duvall never expected his call to the “confidential” hotline to be used against him by a prosecutor, Cargill said. “It is contrary to Congress’ express goal of helping veterans in need and encouraging them to get help without fear,” he wrote. “This is dishonorable; it is wrong; it is unfair; it shocks the conscience.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment because Duvall’s case is still pending. A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for Feb. 14.

The Department of Veterans Affairs defended its procedures in a written statement, but did not address whether its efforts might be hampered by the Duvall charges.

The VA noted it is permitted under law to disclose otherwise private information “when necessary to avert a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of an individual or the public,” according to the statement provided by spokesperson Phil Budahn.

“Alternative solutions are always explored with the Veteran, and if none can be found that guarantee safety, local law enforcement is notified. At that point, the responder is trained to keep the Veteran engaged and safe. Once help arrives, responsibility for the situation is turned over to the local authorities. All policies and procedures of the Crisis Line are based on respecting callers’ rights of confidentiality,” the VA statement said.

Two mental health professionals involved in national discussions of suicide prevention for service members and veterans suggest Duvall’s prosecution could undermine prevention efforts.

“Actions such as this only serve to compound the problem, fueling the impression that the essential networks are not there to help but, as in this case, punish and prosecute,” said University of Utah psychologist M. David Rudd, scientific director for the National Center for Veterans Studies.

Washington psychologist Alan L. Berman, president of the International Association of Suicide Prevention, agreed. “The threat of punishment will deter help-seeking, the very thing that Mr. Duvall did in calling the VA Crisis Line to begin with,” Berman said.

Rudd said the veterans treatment courts which are sprouting around the country are designed to handle this type of case. Although Roanoke federal courts offer a veterans treatment program, it was not clear why Duvall’s case was not referred to it.

Both Rudd and Berman say they hope federal prosecutors back off from the charges against Duvall.

“Clearly the veteran in this case wanted help and made the right decision,” Rudd said. “Now, we need for the justice system to make the right decision.”

The veterans’ crisis line launched in July 2007. Since then, according to the VA, over 540,000 calls have been received with about 20,000 resulting in some form of rescue.

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