At what level of detail do you have to describe the spit upon which you’ll be cooking your wife before somebody comes and arrests you for it?
Or, on the Internet, at what point does your illegal thought become an illegal action?
Those two questions form the premise of Thought Crimes, the new HBO documentary about Gilberto Valle, or the “Cannibal Cop,” who came close to spending the rest of his life in prison for concocting plans to cook and eat his wife and friends to appease a fetish. He says the schemes were entirely fantastical.
It’s an achievement of a film—one that gains unprecedented access to Valle while he’s under house arrest, cooking what appears to be a comical amount of food over a several-month period as he languishes in appeals purgatory.
It’s an achievement of a film, however, with a terrible and misleading name—one that belittles and disservices the genuine grievances of those losing their freedom over much less than what Valle did to himself.
Valle, a former NYPD police officer whose conviction eventually was overturned, doesn’t dispute that he wrote on an Internet forum about tying women up and cooking them over a spit while his wife and newborn baby slept in the other room.
But this was all fantastical, he says. Valle was railroaded, his defense says: It amounts to prosecuting someone for his thoughts.
And a lot of the scholars and lawyers and thinkers in the film agree with that premise: At what point does one man’s mere thoughts constitute enough of a threat for him to lose his freedom? The answer in the United States justice system is supposed to be, never.
Valle’s attorneys want you to believe that his tales of eating people—however abhorrent, however indefensible—would never exist outside of fantasy. If thought were to be treated as intent—and an offense—on the Internet, Valle’s lawyer Julia Gatto contends, this would set a terrible precedent for Americans on the Web: Write a horrible thought on a message board and go to jail for life.
Here is what we know: Gil Valle created a spreadsheet of real women in his life—his friends, his exes, his wife’s friends—replete with their height and weight, and shared them with a community of potential cannibals. He used an NYPD database to seek a few of them them out about a year after these conversations began. The defense says neither he nor anyone in his online kink-adjacent community would ever actually go through with it.
Twenty-seven times he was asked on a website called DarkFetishNet if he was serious about cooking and eating a woman—or, say, a spreadsheet full of them—in real life.
The defense points to the 24 times he said he was just playing around.
They omit the three times he said he wasn’t kidding. They omit the three times he said he was dead serious.
His lawyers omit the time Valle drove to Maryland with his wife and child to meet a college friend, whom he had told a man online he was planning to chop up. The lawyers omit the dry run—even if done just for kicks—where he drove by that college friend’s office and texted her to make sure it was, in fact, the right place, just as he’d told the fellow wannabe cannibal online before the trip.
They omit his dinner with a woman whom he portrayed as more food than human. They omit Valle’s immediate scurry to the computer when he got home to document to his online friends how, exactly, they would handle her as meat now that he’d seen her again in person.
They omit all of the things that would constitute action.
None of this would be public without the fine work of Thought Crimes director Erin Lee Carr, who’s the daughter of the late, beloved New York Times media reporter David Carr. She sought out a jury member (who is anonymous but speaks for herself in the film), and that juror outlined how Valle’s interstate trip clearly crossed the line from disgusting, impossible fantasy into morbid, conceivable reality.
And what followed was a fascinating, hyper-intellectual discussion about thought crimes—ones that were simply not illustrated in the film. Alan Dershowitz was there driving home a few important points: Does the government have the right to plow through metadata to read your instant messages? Nowadays, isn’t a thought on a message board no different from a throwaway sentence said aloud in private?
Then, the central theme: At what point does thought cross the line into action?
Probably sometime on Valle’s 200-mile trip to Maryland to size up a woman he was planning to cook and eat and use her head as “a centerpiece,” as he puts it in the film. Or maybe at the point Valle listed his own wife in a spreadsheet of women he’d like to kill and eat on a computer the couple shared.
Remember: Valle wasn’t caught because of some elaborate government—or even NYPD—surveillance sting. He was caught because his wife suspected he was acting strangely, put a key logger on the family computer, and then discovered—baby in tow, to her horror—that she was on a list of people he’d wanted to cook and eat.
It’s an outstanding documentary—one that could reach Going Clear and The Jinx levels of buzz—and a well-timed one for HBO. The appeal to put Valle back in prison—he spent 21 months in jail before being freed last July—begins the very day after Thought Crimes airs on HBO.
That’s no coincidence. But the thought crime in Thought Crimes is no thought crime, either. Calling Valle’s actions a “thought crime” mentions him in the same breath as those hounded or jailed or deported by American authorities for simply having made a phone call to someone accused of a particularly horrendous crime.
Valle did not suffer the same injustice. His case, if anything, undermines a sincere shot at justice for the very real “thought crime” that exists within our country.
Consider the case of Mustafa Ozseferoglu, who has been held by the FBI for months for making one phone call to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers—who was his former coworker at a pizza place—a few weeks before the attack after running into Tsarnaev on the street. He was asking Tsarnaev if he needed help fixing his car. Now he faces deportation to his native Turkey.
Ozseferoglu is not alone. Silent, sweeping government surveillance is, in fact, ongoing in this country. Orwellian injustice is happening right now, and it’s allowed under the color of U.S. law. The line between “thought” and “action” is a most exploitable ambiguity.
Valle didn’t just cross it. He drove 200 miles over it both ways.
“Ozseroglu’s Phone Call About a Broken Muffler” doesn’t fit on a tabloid front page. It doesn’t even fit on the title field of this website. But the Cannibal Cop? The Cannibal Cop’s “thought crime”—with his spreadsheet of women he wanted to cook, pulp and all—is perfect for a Sunday night on HBO, even if it isn’t a thought crime at all.