Surveys often find that lawyers are pessimistic people. This is not a surprise given that the law often regulates the lowest of society’s instincts, so each case will often seem morally worse than the previous one. At the same time, American society places a high value on freedom. The price of freedom though is allowing morally questionable actions to pass without judgment, even if morally questionable actions come very close to crossing the line from morally questionable to legally outrageous.
Gilberto Valle puts these principles to the test in a shocking story from New York. Gilberto Valle was a member of the New York Police Department until his wife reported him to the FBI. There are many possibly embarrassing things that a wife does not want to find on her husband’s computer. Dating websites and pornographic websites can break a marriage, but conspiring to kidnap, rape, kill and eat women is certainly grounds for more than a divorce. After Valle was arrested and suspended from his duties as a police officer, the FBI searched his apartment and found a list of women Valle planned to eat. Investigators also found a list of items the conspirators needed to perform the acts, as well as plans for meal preparation. The FBI also found internet chat logs about rape and cannibalism, including discussions to sell another conspirator’s young stepdaughter as a sex slave.
District Court Judge Gardephe found sufficient evidence to allow the case to proceed to a jury trial. The FBI, upon further investigation, discovered that Valle had become acquainted with several of the women on his list. He had lunch with one of them, and a few claimed that Valle had stalked them using his patrol car. Prospective jurors were shown shocking images of some of the websites Valle frequented, including a picture of a young woman nude, bound, and gagged on a serving plate (Warning: graphic image attached to that link). Jurors who were too disgusted by the images were excused from jury service.
As bizarre as this case is, Valle is a textbook example of an incomplete or inchoate crime. Inchoate crimes are crimes which are planned out by the suspect but are not actually performed yet. Inchoate crimes are the law’s recognition that law enforcement should not have to wait for the suspect to actually harm someone before law enforcement can arrest the suspect. The prosecution must argue that the defendant intended to carry out and would have carried out the crime but for outside intervention.
The defense attorney has to counter that the defendant was not even close to carrying out the crime or that the defendant had no intention of carrying out the crime. According to defense attorneys, inchoate crimes lead to the worst kind of criminal cases: prosecution of otherwise innocent people who have not committed any crimes.
The most significant aspect of inchoate crimes though is the law’s ability to regulate the thoughts and impulses of individuals. In this case of course, Valle’s thoughts and impulses are grotesque. The purpose of the law though is not to regulate every thought the population may have. The law should only ensure that people do not hurt each other. In a case like this, it is easy to lose perspective that Valle’s sexual fantasies are not on trial. The real issue of this case is whether Valle and his co-conspirators online actually intended to carry out their plans. The latter is about protecting society while the former would represent a significant change in the minimum standards set out by the law.