MANHATTAN (CN) - The case of a so-called "cannibal cop" is about the "freedom to write even the darkest thoughts of the human imagination," a defense attorney told federal jurors Monday.
Gilberto Valle, the 28-year-old New York City Police Department officer, acknowledges that he repeatedly logged onto the website Darkfetishnet.com to chat with other men about kidnapping, raping, torturing and eating women.
The parties disagree about whether the contents of his chats are evidence of a criminal conspiracy or constitutionally protected speech.
His lawyer, Julia Gatto, told the jury that more than 38,000 other men and women are Darkfetishnet members, and they often discuss fantasies on the website that would be illegal to try in real life.
Calling it the "Facebook for the fetishist," Gatto said that the average member's motto was "the weirder, the better," and that they are chatting "even now ... every day, every second."
Its owner plans to testify from Russia via live-streaming video for the defense.
During the government's remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson insisted that Valle was not typical of the majority of website users who do not intend to act out their chats.
For one, Valle is a New York City police officer, though he has been suspended without pay since his October 2012 arrest.
"There was a thin piece of metal that some members of the community are privileged to wear close to their hearts," Jackson told the jury before pointing at the defendant. "Officer Gilberto Valle was privileged to wear such a badge."
Valle also conducted "meticulous research" that separated him from the Darkfetishnet fold, Jackson added.
An FBI forensic investigation into Valle's Google searches showed that the officer sought out the chemical composition of chloroform, the "best rope" for tying women and recipes based on human flesh.
Valle is also accused of breaking into a national crime database to profile his victims.
Throughout Jackson's speech, the prosecutor emphasized that the subject of Valle's chats were "very real women," including his former classmate, a New York elementary school teacher and even his wife, Kathleen Mangan. "His wife would see that his life was far from normal," Jackson said. "He was behaving strangely, extremely strangely."
Jackson said that Valle initially was able to "cover his tracks" by deleting his web history, until Mangan installed software on his computer to record his online movements.
When she discovered the chats, Mangan took their daughter, fled from their home and sent the data she collected to the FBI.
Jackson promised that she and the rest of the "very real women" would take the witness stand. She testified against her ex-husband after the end of opening arguments.
Defense attorney Gatto contends that Mangan mistook "Gil's porn" as a plot against her life.
"If you were scared by what the prosecutor was telling you, who could blame you?" she asked.
The allegations against Valle are "the stuff of horror movies" - and "pure fiction," Gatto said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't convict people for their thoughts, no matter how sick and disturbing they are," she said. "You are not the deputy agents of the Thought Police."
During the elaborate jury-screening process, many jurors reported that they read much of the sensational coverage of the so-called cannibal cop.
Gatto seemed eager to play down that association by referring to her client as "Gil."
A University of Maryland graduate, "Gil" joined the Marine Corps before landing a job with the NYPD, and moved to New York City to live with his wife, daughter and his bulldog.
Valle never had any disciplinary record in the police force until his "private sexual thoughts" became aired in "an unbelievably public forum," Gatto said.
She then gestured to the majestic courtroom in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, which just opened this year.
Playing down the specificity of Valle's chats, she said: "The fantasies that are the best are the ones that are sprinkled with details."
She insisted that allegations against her client unravel upon closer inspection of the chats.
As an example, Gatto pointed to the arrest of one of Valle's alleged co-conspirators, Michael Vanhise, a 22-year-old toy car collector from New Jersey who lives in his grandmother's basement.
Prosecutors say Vanhise agreed to pay $5,000 for Valle to kidnap a woman in February 2012.
But Gatto said Vanhise "doesn't have 10 cents" for the bounty.
The February deadline came and went with no payments and no kidnapping, she added.
When they chatted again in May, the alleged price had suddenly shifted $4,000 for Valle to deliver the same woman "in a couple of days," she said.
Neither party haggled over the price, spoke of an address to deliver the woman or transferred any payments, Gatto told jurors.
The supposed transaction was "preposterous," she said
"Even more shocking than Gil Valle's thoughts is the fact that the federal government brought this case at all into a federal court," Gatto said.
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