Humanizing Cannibal Cop on Eve of Appeal: "Thought Crimes" Doc Reveals Unseen Side of Gilberto Valle

04/24/2015 01:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Next month, a New York federal appeals court will hear arguments in the criminal case against Gilberto Valle III. He is the former New York City Police Department officer who forever will be branded and stigmatized as the Cannibal Cop despite, of course, having never engaged in cannibalism.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit eventually renders its opinion sometime later this year in United States v. Valle, it will carry huge First Amendment implications. That's because it will wrestle with the limits on fiendish fantasies and freedom of expression on the Internet - a venue where people feel cloaked in anonymity and, in Valle's case, sometimes express monstrous sentiments that push the boundaries not only of good taste, but of the law.

For Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, who spoke last week on a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival following the premiere of a fascinating new HBO documentary called Thought Crimes, Valle's case is about nothing less than "the future of the preventive state" that has dominated wide swathes of the legal landscape since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

It's a state in which law enforcement sometimes launches preemptive strikes - ones sacrificing civil liberties like freedom of thought and expression - in order to ostensibly prevent down-the-road harms. As Dershowitz explains elsewhere, "the law is moving much more in an area of trying to prevent wrongs than trying to deal with them after they occur."

Gilberto Valle was convicted by a jury in 2013 of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, based on a series of macabre messages posted in chats on the Dark Fetish Network with others, using the handle MHAL52. Some of those posts expressed an interest in cooking and eating women - actions Valle never undertook, but from which sprang the moniker Cannibal Cop.

In June 2014, however, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe tossed out the conspiracy-to-kidnap conviction. Writing that the case reflects "the Internet age in which we live," Gardephe emphasized that "no one was ever kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place, and no real-world, non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone." The judge noted that Valle's postings consisted of little more than a steady stream of lies about himself and his supposed plans.

Is it possible to humanize - at this late stage in the legal game - a man like Valle who, in much of the public's mind, is forever associated with the most inhumane of thoughts?

Erin Lee Carr, making her feature documentary directorial debut, does a noble job in Thought Crimes of painting a far more nuanced account of Valle and his online activities than do the mainstream news media. Carr gained face-to-face access to Valle during his 22-month prison confinement and then later interviewed him at home where he lives with his mother.

Thought Crimes balances chilling lines of text from Valle's computer musings - lines in the documentary that appear repeatedly and starkly against a serious-suggesting black background - with his own softer-spoken words that it was all just a fantasy and that, when he would shut the computer off, it was over.

"I'm incapable of any violence. I couldn't hurt a fly," Valle says at one point during Thought Crimes.

But Carr, in a successful attempt at evenhandedness, jarringly juxtaposes lines from Valle's postings about cannibalism with images of him at home under arrest stirring a pot of red-colored food on the stove. Carr even gets Valle to talk about his decision this January to create an online dating profile where, perhaps somewhat naively or obliviously, he lists "cooking" as a hobby. At moments like that, one feels sorrow and pity for Valle, who seems not to recognize that his re-entry into society will be anything as easy as creating a profile.

In introducing Thought Crimes during its premiere last Thursday at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Chelsea, Carr acknowledged that "it too so much bravery" for Valle to willingly make himself the subject of her documentary. Indeed it did, and regardless of whether the appellate court that hears his case next month takes his side, Thought Crimes gave him a fair shot - not a PR stunt - at rounding out the portrait of a person many view as a pariah.

Ultimately, what Thought Crimes and the case of Gilberto Valle tease out are the fuzzy lines between speech and action, between fantasies and realities, and between life in cyberspace and life in the real world.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote than 80 years ago in United States v. Schwimmer that "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Second Circuit will put that maxim to the test month in United States v. Valle.