(MCT) NEW YORK — A federal jury in Manhattan on Tuesday convicted police officer Gilberto Valle of conspiracy to kidnap and eat women, stunning Valle, his family and a defense team that relentlessly argued he had engaged only in crude online role-playing fantasies.
Six-year New York Police Department veteran Valle, 28, flinched, lurched forward and held his head when the guilty verdict was read. Later, he cried and hugged his lawyer. His mother Elizabeth, her face soaked with rain and tears leaving the courthouse, said she was “shocked.”
“Why am I shocked?” she barked at one reporter as she dodged cameras. “Did you attend that trial? That’s why I’m shocked.”
Valle was charged with plotting in Internet chats with three men he met on a kinky-sex website to abduct, abuse and cannibalize women he knew, including his wife, and with misusing a police database. Jailed since his arrest, he will face up to life in prison at his sentencing June 19. He was fired by the police department Tuesday.
The seven-day trial was a tightrope walk on the line between fantasy and reality.
Valle was never accused of hurting anyone, and prosecutors presented little proof of any action to execute the plots he chatted about. All the dates set online for kidnappings passed uneventfully, and even U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe said there was “almost no evidence of actions beyond computer-based activities.”
Valle’s defense lawyers and legal experts attributed the verdict to the flexibility of the conspiracy law — which requires only an “agreement” to commit a crime and virtually no action — and to the graphic descriptions of what he wanted to do to women that were found on Valle’s computers.
“The case involved things that were unusual and bizarre and very ugly,” said defense lawyer Julia Gatto. “The jury couldn’t get past that. But we don’t prosecute people for their thoughts.”
James Cohen, a criminal-law professor at Fordham University Law School, said: “You need very little to get a conviction for conspiracy, and that’s the danger of the conspiracy statute. … The difference between a conspiracy and a fantasy may be like the difference between twilight and dusk.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in a release, noted that Valle had researched methods of drugging women on the Internet, used a police database to look up his targets, and drew up a “blueprint” for abducting one woman.
Bharara said jurors concluded it was a “real” plot, and rejected criticisms that the case would chill Internet freedom. “The Internet is a forum for a free exchange of ideas,” Bharara said, “but it does not confer immunity for plotting crimes and taking steps to carry out those crimes.”
In an interview, juror William White, 44, said there was no dissension among jurors during the 13 hours of deliberations and that it was “pretty clear to everyone” that Valle wasn’t just fantasizing.
White said jurors were not influenced by the graphic nature of the images. “That was definitely overlooked,” he said. “It was about going through all the facts and going through every detail presented and taking everything into consideration.”
The defense plans an appeal, and before Valle is sentenced his lawyers will also have the chance to persuade the judge to overturn the verdict. In addition to the limited evidence of an agreement on a real plot, Cohen said, the defense is likely to bring up a freewheeling summation by prosecutor Randall Jackson.
Jackson asked jurors to ask themselves if they would take action if they overheard fellow passengers chatting about a hijacking, or would dine at a restaurant where they knew the chef fantasized about lacing food with cyanide. He also said the fact that jurors would be upset at the FBI if they had ignored Valle and women were then killed “eliminates the possibility that we have reasonable doubt.”
The defense, Cohen said, is likely to say those arguments were “improper in several respects.”
Denise A. Bonilla of Newsday contributed to this report.
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