The trial has all the grisly details of a horror movie: a husband’s dark secret, kidnapped victims, mutilated bodies, and eating cooked human flesh. But the defendant in this case never actually committed a crime.
NYPD’s Officer Gilberto Valle, is currently on trial for plotting to kill, cook, and eat several women — including his wife. The problem with this case, however, is that Valle never actually did anything other than chat with people online.
When Valle’s wife noticed him spending too much time on his computer, she decided to investigate what was consuming his attention. She testified in court that she found chat rooms and conversations on fetish websites, where Valle wrote out his sexual fantasies of kidnapping women, killing them, and eating their flesh. His wife quickly called the F.B.I. and Valle was arrested.
Valle’s defense attorneys correctly point out, that he never actually committed a crime. All Valle did was discuss his — albeit highly disturbing — fantasies with men and women, on a sexually themed social network. His chats included detailed plans about how he would theoretically enact his fantasy, which are more than justifiable grounds for a divorce … but should Valle be going to jail?
Intent is the trickiest part of criminal law, but it is also the most central aspect in weighing someone’s guilt. If I’m studying how to fly planes, regularly visiting anti-American websites and attending a mosque whose cleric preaches violent jihad, I may merit some investigatory scrutiny from authorities. But if I watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, am I condoning murder? If I angrily shout out “I’m going to kill you” in a bar fight, does that prove intent to kill? There is a very difficult gray zone to navigate between someone’s will and their actions.
My brother-in-law is a very experienced criminal defense attorney in London. He explained to me that in England, U.K. terrorist laws criminalize those who posses any "terrorist materials" like The Anarchist Cookbook, regardless of whether they intend to use them. I personally bought a copy of the book on Amazon.com my freshman year of college, out of a morbid sense of curiosity. I don’t mind landing on a few government agencies’ radar due to that inquisitiveness, but I would certainly object to spending the next 10 years in Guantanamo for "terrorist plots."
My brother-in-law has also had a crazy client who walked into a police station, confessing to kidnapping, raping and murdering a child. He was arrested, but no bodies could be found and the case was dismissed once they determined the man couldn't be trusted on his word. Studies have found many people confessing to crimes they didn't commit, for a variety of reasons. The bigger question is, at what point can we be held accountable for the thoughts in our heads? Should we be punished for the compulsions of our inner demons?
People have all sorts of fantasies, strange impulses, and ideas. Most of them occur outside of their control. The measure of will, comes in how we choose to act or restrain ourselves regarding those notions.
Most people’s internet browser history would make their mothers blush, if their mothers weren't too busy Googling their own odd curiosities. Humans are an inquisitive species by nature; we are fascinated with the unknown — be it mysterious, sexual, foreign, puzzling, artistic, or inexplicable. And once we find an exotic fruit that makes new parts of our brain hum, we sometimes over-consume it to feed that sensation.
The question remains, can you arrest someone for fantasizing online with strangers? Can you arrest an audience in a Jerry Bruckheimer explosion-laden action film for supporting destruction of property? Can you arrest women who enjoy bondage pornography for being accessories to kidnapping? If you are sent a picture of the Simpsons family cartoon characters engaged in a satirical orgy with each other, are you trafficking in incest and child pornography materials?
At what point does fantasy turn from wild imagination into criminal intent to harm?
Valle's trial is unfolding with little attention from the press, but it could set a very dangerous precedent in which everyone becomes legally accountable for everything they say, see and share online.