MANHATTAN (CN) - Ex-New York City police officer Gilberto Valle must remain a free man because sexual fantasies are not criminal acts, "no matter how perverse or disturbing," the Second Circuit ruled Thursday.
Before Valle's cannibalism kinks filled the pages of a 2012 federal indictment, the 28-year-old's horrified wife had gone the FBI with the morbid chat logs her police officer husband had racked up on the website Darkfetishnet.com.
Prosecutors insisted that Valle was serious when he told random Internet users that he wanted to kidnap, rape, torture, murder, cook and consume women in his social orbit, but the chats themselves showed the schemes to be implausible.
Valle's attorney Julia Gatto warned that convicting her client would encourage the dawn of the "thought police."
Even though the jury convicted Valle on all counts, the presiding Judge Paul Gardephe overruled that verdict because he believed that it was not supported by the evidence, and the prosecutors vowed to appeal.
The Second Circuit agreed 2-1 on Thursday there was "insufficient evidence" to keep Valle, now 31, behind bars.
"This is a case about the line between fantasy and criminal intent," Judge Barrington Parker wrote for the majority. "Although it is increasingly challenging to identify that line in the Internet age, it still exists and it must be rationally discernible in order to ensure that 'a person's inclinations and fantasies are his own and beyond the reach of the government.'"
Prosecutors argued Valle was serious because the subjects of is dark fantasies included his wife, a college friend and Facebook contacts.
Disagreeing, Parker wrote: "Fantasizing about committing a crime, even a crime of violence against a real person whom you know, is not a crime."
"This does not mean that fantasies are harmless," the majority opinion continues. "To the contrary, fantasies of violence against women are both a symptom of and a contributor to a culture of exploitation, a massive social harm that demeans women. Yet we must not forget that in a free and functioning society, not every harm is meant to be addressed with the federal criminal law."
During appellate arguments, Judge Chester Straub had appeared especially disturbed by Valle's behavior. In a blistering 34-page dissent today, Straub accused his colleagues of trying to "enshrine all the conduct in this case in an academic protective halo."
"This is not a case about governmental intrusion on one's personal inclinations and fantasies nor is it a case about governmental punishment of one's thoughts," Straub wrote. "It is, instead, a jury's determination of guilt for a conspiracy based on definitive conduct."
Valle also skated on charges that he broke a federal law - the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - by accessing a law-enforcement database as an officer of Manhattan's 26th Precinct to research the women featured in his chats. While Valle did not have permission to use the database for this purpose, his misconduct here did not implicate federal law, the court found.
For Straub, these acts proved criminal intent.
"This is not a case of confused, accidental, or otherwise inappropriate use of a law enforcement database," his dissent states. "It is, instead, a police officer's use of the official database to obtain, outside the boundaries of his official duties, data about a woman whom he knew."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.
Valle's appellate attorney Edward Zas emphasized in a statement that "fantasies, no matter how repugnant, are not crimes."
"This ruling is a very important victory not just for Mr. Valle, who has now been cleared of all criminal charges, but for an open society that treasures freedom of thought and expression," Zas said in a statement.