The “Cannibal Cop” Case was not really about free speech. But it raises the question: When Does Internet Fantasy Become Criminal?
In case you hadn’t heard about it – it was a bizarre criminal case sensationalized by both the media and the defense team. Slogans and spin were tossed about so fast and furiously that the real facts of the case were hard to determine. At the core of the federal case a very important issue: when do thoughts expressed in internet chat rooms become fodder for criminal prosecution? Could something you write on-line be used against you in a court of law?
From the get-go reporters branded the defendant in this case, New York Police officer Gilberto Valle, “The Cannibal Cop” – a man who used the internet to feed his vile fantasies and conspire with others to kidnap, cook and eat female victims.
Attorneys for Valle maintained federal prosecutors were trying to convict their client, “For his thoughts … his (written) fantasies,” and not for any bona fide criminal activity.
I was ready to be outraged at the idea that the feds were trying to convict someone based solely on rambling cyber writings no matter how despicable they might have been. I latched on to a line in the closing argument of defense attorney Julia Gatto when she said, “This prosecution rests on the ugliness of Gil’s thoughts. We don’t convict human beings because of ugly thoughts.”
It turns out neither characterization was accurate. This “Cannibal Cop” hadn’t cannibalized anyone. No human being was physically hurt although Valle’s wife was emotionally destroyed when she stumbled across graphic and incriminating information on her new husband’s computer. (She immediately left home taking their baby daughter with her and contacted the FBI to report what she had found.)
And, as the evidence revealed in court it wasn’t just “fantasy role playing,” as Valle’s defense team would have had the jury believe. There was plenty of evidence gathered by federal investigators which revealed blatant overt acts committed by Valle in furtherance of the crimes of kidnapping and maybe even attempted murder. An FBI agent who spoke with Valle after his arrest testified that the defendant had admitted his cyber fantasy life was “bleeding” over into his real life.
To summarize the prosecutor’s court case: Officer Valle — married just three months — had long corresponded with other “death fetishists” worldwide about his potential kidnap victims, torturous forms of cooking prey and elaborate dining plans with the head of the female victim used as a centerpiece. He listed among his intended victims his wife, two college friends and a local high school softball star.
Valle’s explicit e-mails to fellow fetishists outlined in gruesome and sick detail his plans for the targeted women once he had captured and trussed them. He wrote of cooking rotisseries, wanting to hear his victims scream and cry out in pain and how he drooled over seeing one of his potential victims during a week-end brunch date with his wife. He wrote that he longed, “for the day I cram a chloroform-soaked rag in her face.” The prosecution described Valle as a “sexual sadist” and said that brunch was Valle’s way of conducting surveillance of an intended victim.
Officer Valle’s e-mail correspondence with a New Jersey man revealed he had agreed to take $5,000 in exchange for kidnapping a specific victim for him and there was testimony that officer Valle had been seen in that woman’s neighborhood, on her block, conducting surveillance on her home. (That New Jersey man has also been arrested and is currently awaiting trial.)
There was also evidence presented to the six-man six-woman jury that Officer Valle had illegally accessed both the NYPD and a federal data base to gather personal information about his intended female targets. Records of his internet searches were there for all to see with specific dates and times attached.
When the defense described this case with the snappy description of being a, “thought prosecution” –and when other defense attorneys jumped in to warn that all of us should worry that anything we write on line could be used against us – I had to hope that discerning consumers of news could see through the bluster. What was the defense team really saying – that prosecutors had no right to act unless Valle had actually killed and cannibalized some poor, unsuspecting woman? To my mind that is some kind of tortured thinking all on its own.
The fact? Valle faced no “thought charges. “ There were only two counts: Conspiring to kidnap and accessing a federal data base without authorization. Neither charge was based solely on his inner thoughts or his disgusting writings. And, the jury obviously felt there was enough evidence that he had taken concrete actions toward committing a crime to find him guilty on both counts.
After the verdict U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement: “A unanimous jury found that Gilberto Valle’s detailed and specific plans to abduct women for the purpose of committing grotesque crimes were very real … The Internet is a forum for the free exchange of ideas, but it does not confer immunity for plotting crimes and taking steps to carry out those crimes.”
The defense team has announced it will appeal Valle’s conviction and so you will likely hear more about how the government is out to violate your rights or to turn your internet chats against you. Don’t be fooled. I’m confident that our freedoms of speech, writing and thought are safe and sound.