Trial of 'cannibal cop' in New York raises questions of fact or fantasy
Jury to decide if chatting online about fetish to kidnap women and eat them amounts to a crime
The trial of New York's so-called cannibal cop was due to end yesterday, leaving the jury with a lot of gruesome testimony to digest and one troubling question - at what point does fantasy become real?
Gilberto Valle, a 28-year-old police officer, is accused of conspiracy to kidnap women that he then planned to torture to death, cook and eat.
The horrific allegations have riveted New York, and his lawyers and prosecutors were due to make closing arguments ahead of the case being handed over to a jury. If convicted, Valle could be sentenced to life in prison.
What's agreed is that Valle spent endless hours researching cannibalism online and entered chat rooms on extreme fetish websites to discuss his literal hunger for young women.
The suspended officer's computer records show he wanted to know recipes for human flesh, techniques for tying people up, and instructions for using chloroform to knock out a kidnap victim. He also kept extensive files on women he knew, including his now estranged wife, and suggested in his internet chats that they were suitable kidnap victims - and human meals.
"The evidence is overwhelming," the prosecutor said. But conspiracy charges can be a grey area, since they refer to crimes planned, yet not committed.
Earlier this week, a defence lawyer applied unsuccessfully to US District Judge Paul Gardephe for an on-the-spot acquittal, saying, essentially, that nothing had happened - no one was kidnapped, or eaten, or harmed in any way. "This is a very, very troubling case on a number of levels," said defence lawyer Edward Zas.
Mr Valle engaged in very, very ugly conversations. But engaging in very ugly conversations is not what he's charged with. Yes there were words ... but the words were said in a particular context on the internet
That context included darkfetishnet.com a site founded in Russia for discussion of sexual fantasies so extreme that they resemble plots for snuff films.
The site's founder, Sergey Merenkov, testified in the trial that decapitation, asphyxiation, cannibalism and necrophilia see the heaviest traffic. But all this, he insisted, is role play for the site's 38,000 registered members.
Brenda Smith, a professor at American University Washington College of Law and an expert on sexual violence, said: "Unless there is some real evidence the person is ready to follow through, then you've got nothing. The thing that's really hard is a lot of people have fantasies."
In the 2002 movie Minority Report, authorities are able to intervene before crimes happen, based on knowledge provided by psychics. Smith said there was danger in the authorities targeting what the movie called pre-crimes.
"I suspect they wanted the conspiracy charge because they're so freaked out by the fetish," she said. "I understand their thinking - that this was someone we were able to prevent following through.
"But we don't have the right kind of tools to figure out where the line is."