Crime: When Bad Thoughts Cross The Line
As writing novels in the crime genre is a big part of what I do, I thought I should start an occasional column about crime.
I’m particularly interested in unconventional incidents. Following on from Jon Ronson’s book about public shaming, I started looking up more unusual cases in which someone has ended up in court for saying something thoughtless. I’m addicted to ‘Storyville’ the superb and rather overlooked documentary arm of the BBC which repackages thought-provoking docs into a single strand. HBO documentaries also prove a trusted source of unusual stories, in particular criminal case histories, but here’s one which was a real puzzler.
Police arrested Gilberto Valle, a police officer who became known as the ‘Cannibal Cop’, not for what he did but for what he said he was going to do via the internet. Valle joined a chatroom on the dark web to talk through his sexual fantasies, and they took a disturbing turn.
In cyber-space he threatened to torture and eat women, discussing their kidnap and eventual cooking with others, but his wife found the messages and reported him. The defence argued that the connection between fantasy and acting out was impossible to predict. Was it role-play or was there a likelihood that Valle would take the next step? He had not made any attempt to take his unpleasant scenarios out of the fantasy world into the real one.
The question here is a unique one; can you commit someone to jail for thought-crime?
There was no question that Valle was behaving in a horrendously creepy way, but can you convict on a wish rather than an act? Would this be the start of a slippery slope into a dystopic science fiction scenario whereby people are locked away for showing an imagined intention? As New York magazine pointed out; ‘Once the trial started, there seemed to be two different cases being argued. There was the actual charge against Valle—conspiracy to kidnap—and then there was the subtext that he was technically not on trial for, the spectre of what Valle might do in the future if he were allowed to go free.’
Valle’s wife testified against him during the trial. Throughout the trial, Valle claimed that the chat room communications were mere fantasy, and that he had no intention of acting on them. He was found guilty of all charges in March 2013. A judge overturned the conviction, saying the evidence supported his contention that he was engaged in only fantasy role-play.
Obviously Valle’s career is over, his marriage ruined, his life shattered. But should he have been put away in case he decided to act out his scenarios? What nobody mentions in the documentary or the news reports is how come nobody came up with an alternative to imprisonment. Couldn’t he have received psychiatric help, or have been tagged or monitored in some way?
This year he went on match.com looking for a woman who enjoys his hobby – cooking (the Daily Mail reported it, of course) so perhaps he’s just really, really stupid. The idea of thought crime has long existed and has been explored in many novels, from Orwell’s ‘1984’ to Philip K Dick’s short story ‘Minority Report’.