NEW YORK: Separating real threats from idle talk is a task that has taken on extreme complexity in the lurid case of Gilberto Valle, a New York City police officer charged with plotting to kidnap, cook and eat women he knew.
At a conspiracy trial now in its second week, a jury has heard how Valle was part of a community of fetishists who got their kicks trading wild fantasies online about violent acts against women.
Prosecutors claim Valle took steps to get into closer contact with some of the women he wrote about, including using a police department database to look up their personal information, emailing and texting them and meeting with at least one of them.
Jurors will have their hands full when they begin deliberations, possibly as early as today.
Valle’s lawyer has argued that it was all clearly fiction. The plans Valle gruesomely described were never carried out. He never purchased the torture implements he described in emails with his fetishist pen pals.
Experts said the case touches on a common challenge in law enforcement: deciphering intent without running afoul of the right to free speech.
“Simply thinking bad thoughts is not a crime anywhere,” said David Raskin, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted terrorism conspiracies.
Nor is spouting off about violence on the Internet. So when terrorist sympathizers go online and talk about wanting to blow up buildings, the FBI will often send in an operative to tease out how far they are really willing to go.
The different types of offenses pose the same challenge for law enforcement, Raskin said. “How do we get inside the guy’s head and figure out if he will act on the things he is saying?”