Food For Thought

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.


10 comments on “Food For Thought

  1. Ryan

    Now that he has been convicted, on appeal would he essentially be arguing that the evidence of online chats and activity was insufficient to establish a concrete step in furtherance of a conspiracy?

  2. SHG

    I would assume that legal insufficiency and against the weight of the evidence would be potential points raised on appeal, but where a defendant is (theoretically) entitled to all favorable inferences before conviction, everything shifts after conviction and the prosecution is entitled to all favorable inferences.

    Whether this is where the defense chooses to put its capital on appeal, however, will be determined by what other points are available and strongest.  The problem is that very significant issues at trial don’t always translate well on appeal. It’s too easy for the circuit panel to simply adopt the prosecution’s rhetoric and dismiss the issue out of hand.

  3. Erika

    i would appreciate some honest reporting here:

    “The jury unamiously found this guy a sick pervert who they wanted to get off the streets anyway possible even if he may not have actually committed been a crime. The U.S. Attorney’s Office pernounced themselves pleased and wishes to assure people that they are only going to go after really, really sick people – like the type of people that a mere recitation of facts is sufficient to get a jury and judges to decide that they really do not want this guy on the streets anymore. Furthermore the U.S. Attorney’s Office pronounced itself extremely pleased that the jury has expanded this “this guy is just a really sick pervert who needs to be taken off the streets and send to prison for something” doctrine beyond its previous utility in targeting pedophiles.”

    of course, i’m not going to lose any sleep that this guy is off the streets and am actually likely to sleep better about it because being cooked and eaten by Cannibal Cops is most definitely a nightmare scenario.

  4. BobN

    That’s pretty much the way I think the prosecutor and jury saw it… The thoughts were just so sick they must be criminal even if he didn’t do anything

  5. Aqua Regia

    I would think that you should lose sleep. That this man is sick, there is no doubt. But as described in the blog, there were no steps taken to bring fantasy to the physical world. This cop was convicted of a thought crime. Something that seems to be becoming promiscuously used in stings these days. Carry on an unapproved conversation and go to jail. Now that is something that should make you lose sleep at night.

  6. TGM

    Great example of bad facts making bad law. Even though the Defendant never actually took a “concrete step” to harm anyone, he seems like the kind of guy who might do it in the future, so the jury decided to put him away. This case will go up on appeal and, more likely than not, the appellate court will be just as disgusted as the jury, and Defendant’s counsel will be treated to some iteration of everybody’s favorite magic words:

    “We are unable to conclude that no reasonable trier of fact could have found the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Of course, while everybody is busy being disgusted, nobody raises an eyebrow at the scary precedent being set. If a google search can be characterized as a an overt act in furtherance of a conspiracy, then one wonders how many people could be convicted of conspiracy for nothing more than morbid curiosity or a sick sense of humor.

  7. SHG

    Exactly. Everybody hates this sick guy, but when the precedent applies elsewhere, and we scratch our heads wondering how it could have ever happened, will we forget it came about when we let it slide because we hated the defendant?

  8. Erika

    sorry, but i just can’t get past that entire “this guy might want to cook and eat me” thing enough to really be upset about this.

  9. Erika

    i’ll try, but i’m afraid this may well turn out to be another child pornography type situation for me. i know in theory that the penalties for possession of child pornography are ludicrous – but every time i look at an individual case, i read that the guy had videos of toddlers being raped and think that a decade in prison isn’t enough because we’ll talking about someone who wants to rape toddlers. i just can’t get past the specific cases to look at the big issue over overpunishment and the fact that sentences in those cases are so severe as to possibly place real children at risk of being molested.

    One reason why i’m not a criminal defense attorney 🙂

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