MANHATTAN (CN) - Potential jurors for the first follow-up trial associated with New York City's infamous "cannibal cop" case showed a thicker skin Monday than their predecessors for coolly weighing sensational evidence.
The charges take aim at grisly sex-link murders New Jersey resident Michael Vanhise, Stuyvesant High School librarian Robert Asch and Massachusetts Veterans Affairs police chief Robert Meltz allegedly plotted over the Internet. While the defendants claim that they were engaging in morbid online fantasy role-play and protected speech, prosecutors insist the serious chats amount to a criminal conspiracy.
The cases and defenses mirror that of former New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, whom the tabloids dubbed the "cannibal cop" for imagining his victims roasted, cooked, barbecued and rotisseried. He was tried and convicted in 2013.
Almost exactly one year ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe dismissed nearly one-third of the potential jurors in the Valle case as they reacted in horror to the jury questionnaire and accompanying selections from the police officer's pornography stash. One of those pictures showed a hogtied woman on a roasting tray with an apple in her mouth; another pictured a woman tied to a skewer that a disguised man is turning over a fire; and the last, a cartoon, depicted a woman being boiled in a stew.
Vanhise, Asch and Meltz do not share the same cannibalism fetish, but the jury questionnaire warned that sexually sadistic imagery from their pornography stashes will appear at trial.
"During the trial the government will introduce emails, recorded conversations among and between the defendants and others, as well as images, and physical evidence such as tools and implements that were allegedly possessed by Mr. Asch," the questionnaire states.
These tools include , among other implements, a meat hammer, duct tape, gloves, cleaning supplies, zip ties, a dental retractor, two speculums, 12-inch skewers, pliers, a wireless modem, and a leg spreader, according to Asch's indictment.
The questionnaire also tells jurors that the evidence includes a sexual fetish website featuring "necrophilia (the practice of having sex with dead bodies), sexual asphyxiation (the intentional restriction of oxygen to the brain for sexual arousal), genital mutilation, rape fantasies, bondage and various forms of sadomasochism (the giving and/or receiving of pleasure - often sexual - from acts involving the infliction or reception of pain or humiliation)." (Parentheses in original.)
On Monday, only 16 of the jurors indicated that they could not weigh such evidence dispassionately, nearly half the number who replied the same way during the Valle case. This left a pool of 84 men and women to fill a 15-person jury with three alternates.
"So far, we're doing very well," Gardephe said.
The jurors' responses to the questionnaire have not yet been made public, and they might not be released at all.
The first question asked: "Do you request that the court maintain your answers to this questionnaire as confidential?"
Whereas Gardephe read juror responses into the record during the Valle case, he only stated generally whether a candidate indicated that he may be biased this time around.
Vanhise's lawyer Alice Fontier told the judge that she objected to a "significant number" of people who made the first cut.
One candidate, a lawyer, said that the subject matter would "make it difficult" for him to maintain objectivity.
Rather than dismiss this candidate, Gardephe said that he should be questioned about that further during voir dire, which starts on Tuesday.
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