Thoughts Aren’t Crimes. Even Really Disgusting, Cannibal Thoughts

The assumption is that the more horrible the crime, the less likely a judge is to apply the law neutrally and fairly. After all, the defendant was awful, and nobody likes really awful people.  In the scheme of horribles, cooking and eating women is right up there.

Yet, SDNY Judge Paul Gardephe did exactly what he was sworn to do, pushing aside the disgusting nature of the allegations and focusing instead on the law and facts.  While those who are inclined to agree with his ruling, granting the defense’s Rule 29 motion and dismissing the count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, you may not appreciate how bold Judge Gardephe was in doing so.  The pressure to deny the motion, when it’s the cannibal cop, must have been unbearable, and yet the judge performed his duty.

The memorandum decision is long, at 118 pages, reflecting the seriousness of the case and the response such a controversial ruling would naturally evoke. In what appears to be an “executive summary,” Judge Gardephe kindly explains up front his basic conclusions, with the legal argle bargle to follow.  The New York Times sums it up.

The judge, in a decision released late Monday night, concluded that Mr. Valle’s Internet plotting had been “fantasy role play” and was not evidence of an actual crime.

“This is a conspiracy that existed solely in cyberspace,” the judge, Paul G. Gardephe of Federal District Court, said in a 118-page opinion that granted a judgment of acquittal to Mr. Valle, a former New York City police officer who had faced a potential life sentence for his conviction.

“The highly unusual facts of this case reflect the Internet age in which we live,” Judge Gardephe added.

What makes this particularly curious is that conspiracy is, by its definition, a “thought” crime, where an “agreement” between two or more people to engage in criminal conduct is a separate crime itself.  In proving an “agreement” for the purpose of proving a conspiracy, there is no requirement that the words “we agree to do this” need be uttered or shown; proof of the agreement is inferred from whatever words are available.

The key to a conspiracy, except a drug conspiracy,* is that there must be an overt act, a concrete step in furtherance of the commission of the offense that is the subject of the conspiracy.  In this case, the government argued that the overt act was there:

At trial, prosecutors argued that Mr. Valle took “concrete steps” to further the kidnapping plot, including illegally looking up potential victims in a law enforcement database, carrying out surveillance of them and using the Internet to research ways to abduct, subdue and cook potential victims.

“He left the world of fantasy; he entered the world of reality,” a prosecutor, Hadassa Waxman, said in her closing argument.

These “concrete steps” are, well, definitely steps.  Another judge, another defendant (bearing in mind that Valle was a police officer), another district, and they may have been close enough to leave the call in the jury’s hands. Or, they may have just been more non-steps, a fantasy played from a distance that never came close enough to real to suffice as an act in furtherance of the crime, just the fantasy.

Once the lies and the fantastical elements are stripped away, what is left are deeply disturbing misogynistic chats and emails written by an individual obsessed with imagining women he knows suffering horrific sex-related pain, terror, and degradation. Despite the highly disturbing nature of Valle’s deviant and depraved sexual interests, his chats and emails about these interests are not sufficient – standing alone – to make out the elements of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. There must be evidence that Valle actually intended to act on these interests with an alleged co-conspirator.

It may have been key to the court’s view that within the bizarre online fantasy chats, there were dates of when they would do things, when kidnappings would happen and women cooked. The dates came and went, without anything happening, and no one questioned why.  This was powerful evidence that the defendant and his online sickos were nothing more than pathetic disgusting nuts who never meant to do more than bolster each other’s sick fantasies.

That’s what makes the internet special. No matter how sick and disgusting a person’s worst thoughts, he can find others just as warped to share them and know that he’s not alone. Great.

Back when Valle was convicted in 2013, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, had his say:

“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,” said U.S. attorney Preet Bharara in March 2013 after a jury convicted Mr. Valle of all charges against him.

There were few prepared to challenge that conclusion at the time, as cannibal cops don’t have many friends, aside from his federal defenders, with lead counsel Julia Gatto, and a handful of sick guys on the internet.  After the grant of the motion, it was Gatto’s turn to speak:

“He is guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts,” she said, “but as Judge Gardephe has validated, we don’t put people in jail for their thoughts. We’re not the thought police, and the court system is not the deputies of the thought police.”

No one at Bharara’s office had anything to say, though it’s fairly easy to imagine what they thought.

There will, no doubt, be an appeal, even as Valle was released.  Whether the Second Circuit will be as bold as Judge Gardephe, as capable of seeing beyond the disgusting thoughts that the prosecution used throughout the trial to smear the defendant and make certain caused the jury to despise him, remains to be seen.

But in this age of the internet, where sick fantasies are shared and expressed by people who used to hold them in the deep recesses of their mind where no one would ever know, the turf is ripe for the thought police in ways it never was before.  This is the opportunity to distinguish between real crime and repulsive thoughts.

* In drug conspiracy, there is no requirement of an overt act. Thought alone, without more, is legally sufficient to prove a drug conspiracy.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts Aren’t Crimes. Even Really Disgusting, Cannibal Thoughts

  1. Bruce Coulson

    But will future prosecutors shy away from charges based on a ‘tyranny of the majority thought’? Given how much positive publicity is to be gained from such convictions? After all, the actual crime Mr. Valle was (and remains) convicted of isn’t all that exciting or newsworthy.

    1. SHG Post author

      Future prosecutors will, and should, prosecute conduct when they believe the evidence is sufficient to prove a crime occurred and the defendant perpetrated the crime. The question for the prosecution in Valle was whether his overt acts were sufficiently concrete steps in furtherance of the conspiracy to survive a trial order of dismissal, a jury verdict, a post verdict order of dismissal and reversal on appeal.

      The question for the rest of us is whether we can discern what looks like a crime from a distance from what is, in actuality, a crime, and not mere internet fantasy or bluster. It’s not an easy thing to do and reasonable people can differ as to whether it comes close enough to nip the edge of proof or falls short.

  2. st

    “Another judge, another defendant (bearing in mind that Valle was a police officer), another district,”

    Indeed. Jim Bell. Assassination politics.

    Cop writes disgusting fantasies about murder and cannibalism of mundanes. Defense motion granted.
    Mundane writes fantasies about murder of cops and other state agents. 12 years in a hole.

    I’m sure a guild member can instruct the unwashed in all the many and varied nuances that justify this disparity. The lesson is plain, and doesn’t require a law degree to understand.

    1. SHG Post author

      A curious comment, given that I specifically pointed out that Valle was a cop. Yet you want to take a swipe at “the guild,” and pre-emptively dismiss any possible distinctions because it’s better to go through life stupid? Okay then. Just do it elsewhere.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Guilds, guilds everywhere…I can’t help but chuckle just a little bit. But you just watch it there esteemed one just because you are a member of a guild doesn’t mean that your guild is “the” guild. Too funny.

        I will just scurry along now and wait for someone to point out that Valle is no Marquis de Sade and he should be drawn and quartered in the public square. Will the intertubes ever catch up with 18th and 19th century literature?

        P.S. Either I am getting sloppy and foolish at the window with my bookmaking or you are getting sloppy with your writing esteemed one. You damn near bankrupted me with this inevitable post. The how many times will the word “sick” appear in this post straight bet dented the reserve funds. If the use of “sick” as an adjective, noun, and verb in the same paragraph trifecta had come in or the “sick and “monster” parlay, I would have had to go dust off the card from my guild and go earn me some grocery money for dinner.

      2. st

        “Guild” was a poor word choice, my apologies. There are multiple guilds in play here, and the term was not meant as a swipe at you or yours. Prosecutors, cops, and judges could all be classified as distinct guilds and the reference was to one of those groups excusing the gross disparity in outcomes.

        1. SHG Post author

          Okay. Good save.

          I can’t say that Valle’s being a former cop made a difference, particularly given the nature of the conduct. But it’s similarly not something to ignore. As this is a rather unusual fact pattern, there really isn’t anything to compare it to.

  3. Brian Whittle

    Thoughts are not a crime however disgusting, there have to be actions to prove conspiracy, there was no evidence in this case that he was going to actually do the stuff he talked about it was just sick fantasy.

    1. SHG Post author

      No. When the jury acquits, double jeopardy is invoked. When the judge grants a Rule 29 motion for acquittal, it’s reviewable on appeal.

  4. BL1Y

    “This is the opportunity to distinguish between real crime and repulsive thoughts.”

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend towards conflating the two, saying that repulsive thoughts contribute to a culture where real crimes happen, thus creating a (purported) justification for punishing repulsive thoughts. Well, not so much punishment as mandatory education with the aim of imparting “the final, indispensable, healing change.”

      1. BL1Y

        There were actually quite a lot of people at American U calling for mandatory reeducation of fraternity members last Spring after an unofficial frat’s emails were hacked and leaked and contained basically the language you’d expect to find in an unofficial frat’s emails.

        But in other news, there’s FIRE, so not all is lost.

        1. SHG Post author

          Mandatory re-education to eliminate impure thoughts. Where have I heard about such a thing before?

          As for FIRE, yes, all is not lost, but then, who besides FIRE and a handful of hearty souls has the will to stand against the religious fanatics who want to rid our colleges of impure thoughts? FIRE alone can’t do it.

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  6. Dan

    A day late, but I read that Valle was relieved to be out of prison, no longer having to sit and stew in his cell all day. He’s looking forward to a home cooked meal, perhaps with some fava beans and a nice chianti. As for the lawyers who worked on his appeal, Valle told them “well done.” As for what the future holds, its unclear what he’ll do next, his police career undoubtedly over before becoming a well-seasoned officer. It won’t be easy for him to date either, as he’ll presumably face a thorough grilling from any potential mate.

    Anyway, be careful out there today folks. Its hot and humid. You could roast.

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