March 12, 2013

Why Today's "Cannibal Cop" Conviction Should Terrify You

Most onlookers in a New York courtroom were apparently stunned today when the so-called "cannibal cop" -- Gilberto Valle -- was convicted in 16 hours of jury deliberation, and now faces potentially life in prison, for what amounts to an Internet fantasy.

He's been held in solitary confinement since his wife used spyware to track his online activities and uncovered his grotesque but inconsistent and fantastical ramblings about kidnapping and eating women. The actual charge was kidnapping conspiracy, even though it was never demonstrated that anybody he talked to on fetish sites ever took him seriously, and in fact his own statements on those sites explicitly noted he was fantasizing.

The prosecution case basically boiled down their belief that being focused on porn relating to eating people was "not normal."

Granted. But neither should be prosecuting someone for conspiracy (all they could go after, since -- keep in mind -- nobody was ever kidnapped, killed, or eaten) when no actual conspiracy even existed or could be actually demonstrated.

Legal experts had generally predicted this outcome, knowing how easily prosecutors could sway juries with nasty photos and tales of dark Internet fantasies. Juries eat up this stuff (no pun intended) -- what the law actually says is of much less concern to them. Most experts, by the way, have also predicted that the odds of a successful appeal in this case are quite high.

I am tempted here to speak at length of my deep distrust and dislike of the
U.S. prosecutorial system (which allows prosecutors enormous selective latitude for abuse) and the utterly dysfunctional, manipulated, and just downright horrendous nature of our jury system as it exists today. In terms of fundamental prosecutorial abuse at least, there are even parallels between this case and the Aaron Swartz disaster.

But perhaps you already know all this.

Of more immediate concern should be the realization that government surveillance and mischaracterizations of Internet behavior could potential drag anyone's Net communications -- however fantastical and unrealistic -- into a world of pain (and shackles and cells), if you're unfortunate enough to have the spotlight aimed in your direction by prosecutors eager to make a name for themselves with a high profile case.

Gilberto Valle had some definitely perverse and ugly fantasies, but as we all know (or should know) his fantasies (and the websites he frequented) don't even qualify as among the most eyebrow-raising on the Web -- not by a long shot.

Hopefully, appellate courts will properly reverse this particular case going forward.

But in the meantime -- and in times beyond -- be careful what you think. Be careful what you say. Be careful what you type. Be careful what you fantasize.

Or risk suffering the penalties for thought crime -- today, tomorrow, and forever.


Posted by Lauren at March 12, 2013 04:40 PM | Permalink
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