No name given a mobster had more of an impact than the one the tabloids pinned on former New York City police officer Gilberto Valle: The Cannibal Cop. In the courtroom of Southern District Judge Paul Gardephe, the jury found him guilty of conspiracy, the darling of the prosecution.
Valle had sick, disgusting thoughts, and naturally found others who shared his fetish for cannibalism on the internet. One of the features of the internet is that it allows people to find and engage with other, like-minded individuals. It’s also one of its flaws, where there is nothing too awful that it doesn’t have its own chatroom. One of the takeaways for people who don’t share diseased fantasies is that there are plenty of people who do, and they can now get together to indulge themselves.
But conspiracy, except if it involves narcotics, is nothing more than evil thoughts. To make it a crime requires an overt act, a significant step in furtherance of the commission of the crime. Valle’s defense was that as horrible as his cannibalism fetish might be, it was just fantasy on the internet among like-minded friends. He only thought bad things. He never did bad things.
But as the United States Attorney for the Southern District announced in his post-verdict press release, the jury saw it differently:
Today, 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, and that he was guilty as charged. 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.
And what “steps to carry out those crimes” did Valle take? As summed up in Slate :
What exactly did the cannibal cop do? Here’s one thing: Last May, five months before the 28-year-old police officer was arrested by the FBI, Valle met up with a friend online. The friend suggested via instant message that they work together on a story. “OK, sounds fun,” Valle said. They began to craft a tale about a restaurant that cooks and serves human flesh.
In July, Valle had another chat with a different online friend—a man called “Moody Blues.” Their conversation flowed very well. Moody Blues, a male nurse who lives in England, pretended to be a connoisseur of cannibalism: He said he’d eaten lots of women and offered up his favorite recipes. Valle responded that he’d been working on a document called “Abducting and Cooking Kimberly: A Blueprint,” and promised to send it over. That Word file had a photo of his real-life friend from college, Kimberly Sauer, and a list of supplies that he would need to carry out a crime. It also gave a set of made-up details about the victim: a fictitious last name, date of birth, alma mater, and hometown.
Sick stuff, for sure, but criminal? Bharara, in his post-hoc effort to explain that the internet doesn’t “confer immunity,” a nifty phrase that bears no connection to the crime, the defense or the culpability for thinking sick thoughts, was talking about this:
The government also claimed that Valle had done practical, strategic research for his crimes. He’d looked up recipes for chloroform, and downloaded photos of his victims to an “organized filing system” on his computer. He even went so far as to alphabetize the list of 80 women, and then he used that list to choose his targets.
Valle googled. So it wasn’t just some fetishists talking smack amongst themselves, but a fetishist who googled. And as Bharara says, the internet doesn’t confer immunity, and the reason for this peculiarly twisted rationale is that the overt act was googling. Because googling sick ideas that are part of some disgusting fetishist’s online fantasy is a significant step in furtherance of the conspiracy. Some virtual friends, horrible fantasies plus googling, and you’ve got a conspiracy and a conviction.
Note the language used in the New York Times to describe the crime:
The prosecutors, Randall W. Jackson and Hadassa Waxman, built their case around the chats and other online messages that Mr. Valle had exchanged with three co-conspirators and what prosecutors said were other concrete steps that he had taken to bring his plan to fruition.
The United States attorney in Manhattan,Preet Bharara, said the jury unanimously found that Mr. Valle’s “detailed and specific plans to abduct women for the purpose of committing grotesque crimes were very real.”
The facts haven’t changed, just the rhetoric. By characterizing Google searches as “concrete steps…to bring his plan to fruition,” and “detailed and specific plans,” they became so to the jury.
As I’ve tried to explain many times, crimes are often proven more by whose adjectives are stronger, more scary. While many people search for things of interest, curiosity or fantasy, an artful prosecutor can turn them into “concrete steps” to engage in real life acts that persuade a jury, even though the steps consisted of nothing more than typing words into the search line of a browser.
For all the sick thoughts that Valle indulged, he never took a real life step to harm anyone. IRL, in real life, is a line that almost every internet user appreciates, as it distinguishes what are mere virtual ideas to something real. The conviction of Gilberto Valle was based on an overt act that consisted of nothing more than the virtual.
The rhetoric employed here blurs the line between thought and reality. If you search recipes for how to cook a human being, is it in furtherance of a real life plan to do so? Does a Google search suffice to take thought from the virtual realm to real life? The verdict in this case says it does, and the rhetoric used by Bharara shifts the ease of searching crazy things for crazy and fantastical reasons to proof that the plan was to walk out of the house, kidnap a woman and eat her.
Is it possible that Gilberto Valle would one day act upon his sick fetish? Yes, though there has yet to be any rash of cannibalism resulting from these chatroom nuts. But if computer searches and chat room bravado is sufficient to establish that he has committed an overt act, then be very careful what you Google as a few adjectives are all that’s needed to convince a jury that the virtual indulgence in ideas are sufficient to prove you’ve taken “concrete steps” to commit a crime.