No one will weep for Officer Gilberto Valle if he’s convicted, including myself. The on-line conversations he engaged in with complete strangers about kidnapping, torturing and cannibalizing targeted women, including his own fiancee, are so horrifying that I just won’t feel sorry for him even if his conduct didn’t quite constitute the crime. Nevertheless, the issue raises really important and challenging issues that our criminal justice system faces in our world of on line communication.
Officer Gilberto Valle has been charged with conspiring with others to kidnap, torture, rape, kill and eat women. In order to have committed a conspiracy to commit a crime, you must have committed “overt acts” in furtherance of the crime. In Valle’s case, the over acts are mostly confined to the conversations he had on line with some other losers like him.
This is based on nothing other than my gut feeling, but I don’t think Valle was ever going to do the disgusting things he talked about in his community of cannibals. I think he got off talking and fantasizing about this stuff and it wasn’t going to go any further. I may very well be wrong of course, but what if I am right?
The Internet offers an ease of finding in participating in community that did not exist before. If you had some cannibalism fantasy/fetish before the internet, how were you going to find like minded people? How does the subject get brought up in friendly bar banter. “Hey, I’m a Yankees fan too. How about torturing and eating women, are you into that?” But today, people can engage the darkest recesses of their mind in ways that are indeed steps closer to the real thing (the crime), but are in fact not engaging in the real thing. And make no mistake, while talking (on line or otherwise) to others about some dark criminal fantasy is a step in the direction of committing the crime, it is still a big leap to the actual commission of the crime.
We are seeing this type of issue all the time in terrorism prosecutions. If you’re simply an angry, disaffected young man blowing off steam with others on line by “chatting” about blowing up a building, is that a crime? Should it be a crime?
Undoubtedly there is great value in preventing a crime by making an arrest before the crime actually happens. But especially in the era of the Internet, where there are “communities” of any interest, no matter how strange or mundane, darkly negative or optimistically positive, available to discuss the interest without actually victimizing someone, do we need to re-evaluate what is an “overt act” constituting a conspiracy.
Undoubtedly, there is a very real public safety value in stopping planned crimes before they are committed. However, as a society we have to start drawing some brighter lines between thought, talk, and crimes.