Is 'Cannibal cop' trial targeting thought crimes?
The trial of New York's so-called "cannibal cop" ends Thursday, leaving the jury with lots of gruesome testimony to digest and one troubling question: at what point does fantasy become real?
Gilberto Valle, a 28-year-old New York Police Department officer, is charged with conspiracy to kidnap women that he then planned to torture to death, cook and eat.
The horrific allegations have riveted New York and on Thursday his lawyers and prosecutors were due to make closing arguments ahead of the case being handed over to the jury. If convicted, Valle could be sentenced to as much as 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.
Conspiracy charges can enter a grey area, since they refer to crimes planned, yet not committed. And in this case, where crime planning was part of a surprisingly common sexual fantasy game, the grey comes in even harder-to-read shades.
Earlier this week, a defense 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 anyway.
"This is a very, very troubling case on a number of levels," defense attorney Edward Zas said.
"Mr Valle engaged in very, very ugly conversations," the attorney said, "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 Russian-founded site 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 conspiracy charges tend to be "slippery."
"The fact is, unless there is some real evidence the person is ready to follow through, then you've got nothing," she told AFP. "The thing that's really hard is a lot of people have fantasies."
In the 2002 hit movie "Minority Report," law enforcement authorities are able to intervene before crimes happen, based on knowledge provided by psychics.
Smith said there is 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. I understand their thinking: that 'this was someone we were able to prevent following through,'" she said.
"But we don't have the right kind of tools to figure out where the line is."
In an online forum last month on The New York Times, Dan Emmett, a veteran of the Secret Service's presidential bodyguard, said threats are made continuously against the life of the president -- and that sorting out the real from the fake is a challenge.
"While such communications can be vile and disturbing, are they criminal acts?" he asked. "Who represents a threat, and who is merely venting frustration? What is free speech, and what is a crime?"
The Valle trial jury was handed one of the most sensational tabloid stories the Big Apple has seen in a long time. Now it faces making a decision that will get to the heart of hallowed US laws -- and society's increasingly edgy future.