NEW YORK -- Defense lawyers say all Internet users should worry that their online words can end up in federal court after a jury concluded that a New York police officer's plans to kidnap, kill and eat young women he knew were more than Internet chatter.
At the end of one of the most unusual federal trials ever, a jury agreed Tuesday with the government that 28-year-old Gilberto Valle wasn't just fantasizing when he conversed online with others he had never met about killing and cooking his wife and others in a cannibalism plot.
"Yes, they should be cautioned," Valle defense lawyer Robert Baum said outside court of people everywhere. "It sets a dangerous precedent."
The larger principle at stake in the trial was that "people can be prosecuted for their thoughts," Baum said, pausing before adding: "And convicted, which is even sadder to think about."
Baum had just exited federal court in Manhattan, where Valle and others at the defense table dropped their heads as the guilty verdicts were announced by a jury that had deliberated for portions of four days.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement: "Today, a unanimous jury found that Gilberto Valle's detailed and specific plans to abduct women for the purpose of committing grotesque crimes were very real and that he was guilty as charged. The Internet is a forum for the free exchange of ideas, but it does not confer immunity for plotting crimes and taking steps to carry out those crimes."
Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles now in private practice, said it was a stretch by the defense to claim Valle was prosecuted for his thoughts because the jurors were required to find that he took one or more concrete steps to carry out the conspiracy.
"It's not just a thought crime. It's a thought-and-action crime and conviction," he said.
Valle defense attorney Julia Gatto declined to talk about the sentencing scheduled for June 19, saying the defense team was focused only on trying to reverse the conviction on charges of kidnapping conspiracy and illegally accessing a national crime database. She said she will appeal within a month to U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe to throw out the jury verdict or to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Although Valle could face up to life in prison, he is likely to get a much lower sentence.
Gatto, who said she cried with Valle after the verdict was announced, called it a "dangerous prosecution when we start opening our minds and prosecuting what's in our brains and not what's in the real world."
The jury, though, rejected the same "thought prosecution" argument she made throughout the trial.
Jurors left the courthouse without comment. Most did not immediately respond to emails and phone messages or declined to discuss the case.
Valle's mother, Elizabeth, shook her head. "I'm in shock and want to be left alone," she said.
Prosecutors said Valle plotted in lusty, lip-smacking detail to abduct, torture and cannibalize six women he knew, including his wife. While none of the women were ever harmed -- and only his wife discovered his schemes -- prosecutors said he took concrete steps to carry out his plot.
They said the New York City police officer looked up potential targets on a restricted law enforcement database; searched the Internet for how to knock someone out with chloroform and where to get torture devices and other tools; and showed up on a woman's block after striking an agreement to kidnap her for $5,000 for a New Jersey man who wanted to rape and kill her. That man was also arrested and is awaiting trial.
In one of the numerous online conversations shown to the jury, Valle told a man he met in a fetish chat room, "I want her to experience being cooked alive. She'll be trussed up like a turkey. ... She'll be terrified, screaming and crying."
In another exchange, Valle suggested a woman he knew would be easy prey because she lived alone. The men discussed cooking her, basted in olive oil, over an open fire and using her severed head as a centerpiece for a sit-down meal.
"I'm dying to eat some girl meat," Valle mused in yet another exchange.
During the trial, Valle's wife tearfully testified that she fled the couple's home with her baby and contacted the FBI after putting Internet tracking software on his computer and discovering what he was up to.
Members of the jury recoiled upon seeing what appeared to be mostly staged Internet images from a sexual fetish site Valle visited. The images included photos of wide-eyed women with apples stuffed in their mouths like roasted pigs and a video of a chained, naked woman screaming as flames appeared to scorch her crotch.