When former NYPD officer Gilberto Valle told a federal judge on Wednesday that he was "incapable of violence," he lied. Firstly and plainly, everyone is capable of violence. But more specifically, Valle — best known by the tabloid moniker "Cannibal Cop" — has already committed a number of violences, even if he never intended to kidnap or eat any women. His online speech was more than violent, it was violence.
An appeals court overturned a jury verdict that convicted Valle of conspiring online to abduct, torture, cook, and eat women — including his wife. US District Judge Paul Gardephe deemed that Valle had not been serious about the gruesome fantasies he depicted online, even though the former cop had used the national police database to research real women as (apparently only notional) victims. He served 21 months in jail for the misdemeanor offense of misusing the database, and as of this week he is free under supervised release. "You made the right decision," Valle told Gardephe.
The judge was correct, but not because Valle is "incapable of violence." Let's be clear: Valle is violent. His online speech was not just a representation of violent acts that he vowed would never materialize, his speech was in and of itself a violent act. Still, a justice system should not cage a man on the basis of a sick fantasy, even one so elaborately contrived and detailed.
The cannibal cop case posed a number of juridical challenges, which were certainly muddied by righteous public disgust at the hideous details and the unavoidable fascination with any story involving cannibalism. But in terms of legal precedent, an upheld conviction against Valle would follow contemporary US justice's increasing and dangerous reliance on predictive policing. It would amount to the sort of wrongheaded law enforcement that slaps terror charges on angry but essentially harmless individuals snagged in entrapment schemes.
If possible, set aside for a minute Valle's ghastly interiority. Let's try not to linger on the fact that he fantasized on message boards about keeping a woman alive as long as possible while cooking her flesh on a low heat. As far as we can, let's move focus momentarily away from the fact that Valle found sexual pleasure in the idea of turning women quite literally into pieces of meat for his consumption. We can judge the ex-cop for this, of course, but his extraordinarily heinous mind should not drive us to support broader structural injustice, which would certainly harm more innocents than would Valle's dark dreams. We can't let one sicko render the justice system more infirm than it already is.
We are already plagued by a national security ideology that plays fast and loose with counterfactuals and hypotheticals. Recall the Newburgh Four — poor, black, Muslim men, some of who suffered from mental illness, who were coaxed to the point of coercion to partake in a fake terror plot in the Bronx planned at every turn by the FBI. Or the Cleveland anarchists caught in an FBI sting in 2011, convinced by an agent to bomb a bridge — they were given both the target and the fake explosives by the feds. These so-called terrorists could not, as Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone, "terrorize their way out of a paper bag." It can never be proven what the suspects in these cases would have done if left to themselves — a point of conditional logic that the US justice system exploits with troubling surety.
Valle was not entrapped nor coerced into detailing diabolical plans online, but he was arrested by the FBI before any attempted kidnapping. Although his active searching for real women on a police database is chilling — and his thoughts and words were violent and misogynistic — it doesn't make him a cannibal.
And while the court of public opinion can deem Valle irretrievably monstrous, the legal system should more readily withhold judgment of guilt to the angry, the impressionable, the wrongheaded and even the vile who are caught in the cross hairs of a judicial rationale that asserts "they would have done it" and throws away the key.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard