Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop" airs on HBO; when may law enforcement step in when witnessing the trail of fantasies?


Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” (2015, 82 minutes), directed by Erin Lee Carr, had played at Tribeca last month and aired Monday night on HBO Documentary, at 9 PM.  Unfortunately, it aired at the same time as another important film on CNN, also owned on Time Warner, by Fareed Zakaria, “Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World”, about national security and also Internet speech, which I recorded an watched right after the HBO film finished.  I reviewed Zakaria’s film on my “Films on Major Threats to Freedom” (“cf”) blog last night (see Blogger profile). It seemed to me that Monday was a continuation of the Baltimore, Maryland Film Festival, even if I was at home. Either of these films would have fit.
  
The film chronicles the legal battle of Gilberto Valle, a former New York City policeman (at a time when police behavior has become politically controversial) who was convicted of “conspiracy” to kidnap and then cannibalize women (almost like “Hannibal” from “The Silence of the Lambs” from 1991, one of my favorite films of the past) based largely on a number of chat room threads, which are often shown in the film.  In 21 of 24 threads, he reportedly said this was all fantasy, but he left things open to more interpretation in at least three of them.  He also traveled to Maryland (the film shows shots of the Bay Bridge) near the residence of one of the supposed female contacts,  The government claimed this was a step in a conspiracy.
  
So the film presents this case as a real-life “Minority Report” (the famous sci-fi film with Tom Cruise, about “pre-crime”).
  
As a factual matter, a district court overturned the conviction, but the overturning was appealed to the Second Circuit, which may decide in June.  Apparently this is not double jeopardy.  The New York Times has a story on this part of the case here. Electronic Frontier Foundation has a copy of the district court opinion here.
  
Valle was indeed properly convicted of misusing a police department computer and formally sentenced to time served.

It seems that in terror-related cases, courts have been very willing to allow convictions based on conspiracies to commit violence.  The film does go into what the normal legal standard should be for "evidence" that a plot is really going to be carried out.  But it can be a very difficult line to draw. 
    
At the trial, Valle’s wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle testified, although the admissibility of some testimony is limited by spousal privilege. Slate has an account of her testimony here.  After she found the chat logs, she installed spyware to watch her husband’s activity. The Daily Beast has another elaboration here
    
The film often shows Valle, acting laid-back, lounging around his Queens home under house arrest.  He’s an average-looking 30-year-old with Italian background.  He looks in some scenes as if he’s checking that the ankle bracelet doesn’t inadvertently shave his leg. Toward the end, he waits for time to pass, hoping the deadline for the prosecution’s appeal will pass, but unfortunately, it gets filed on time, but Valle has been looking at the wrong site.
 
Some have said that the film will prompt the average user to empty his search history and browser cache regularly!
      
Violet Blue, Alan M. Dershowitz and forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner appear and are interviewed. 
    

HBO’s site for the film is here.  It can be watched online through cable subscription. The name of the film is sometimes spelled as one word,  “Thoughtcrimes”, or possibly in the singular, “Thoughtcrime”.
  
On March 21, 2015 I had written about this case on my main “BillBoushka” blog and linked to an Electronic Frontier Foundation story about its own amicus brief to the Second Circuit.  I had also discussed an uncanny similarity to the fact pattern of a situation that occurred in 2005 when I was substitute teaching in Fairfax County, VA.  I had posted a fictitious screenplay treatment and script where an aging male substitute teacher arguably based on me is “tempted” and tricked into an inappropriate (although not explicit) encounter with a precious male student who was underage.  There were a lot of happenstance coincidences in this matter, which I discuss there and link to earlier, much more detailed accounts (including one on Wordpress).  Here the legal question is one of “implicit content”:  if a free web posting doesn’t seem to have a “purpose” (generating revenue), could it be construed as luring someone (eventually) into an illegal act?  Probably not, but it may be close to the line. I have a meta-screenplay (called “Do Ask, Do Tell: Conscripted”) still under wraps) that embeds the story of this 2005 case.  Maybe it will get made.
Bill


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