By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered New York's "cannibal cop" released from jail after overturning the former city police officer's conviction for plotting to kidnap, kill and cook women.
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe in Manhattan threw out the conviction of Gilberto Valle, 30, after federal public defenders argued that the U.S. Constitution grants people the right to fantasize, free from government interference.
Entering the packed courtroom, a beaming Valle, wearing jail-issued blue pants and top, hugged his lawyers and nodded to family members.
Gardephe ordered Valle released on $100,000 bond. He also said Valle would be subject to home detention with GPS monitoring, mental health treatment and could have no access to the Internet.
Prosecutors during Valle's trial said he searched on the Internet for homemade recipes for chloroform to subdue victims as well as recipes for cooking human flesh.
Defense lawyers had argued that Valle never acted after nearly a year of fantasizing about kidnapping, murdering and eating roughly two dozen women - in many cases in online discussions with other fetishists. The women in his fantasies included his estranged wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle.
At the hearing on Tuesday, prosecutor Hadassa Waxman told the judge that the government respected his decision but would appeal.
"The government believes the jury got it right," Waxman said of the March 2013 jury verdict convicting Valle of conspiracy to kidnap. But Gardephe acquitted Valle, a former New York City police officer dubbed the "cannibal cop" by local tabloid media, on the charge of conspiracy to kidnap. He was awaiting sentencing.
Gardephe upheld Valle's conviction on a lesser charge of improperly accessing a law enforcement database, which prosecutors said he used to help find his intended victim. That charge carries a sentence up to one year in prison. His lawyer, Julia Gatto, told Gardephe that Valle, who has spent more than 18 months in jail, "has already served that time and then some."
Prosecutors said Valle crossed the line from fantasy to reality by taking specific action in conspiring to kidnap women. Valle's attorney had argued that he was merely engaged in online fantasy role playing.
"The evidentiary record is such that it is more likely than not the case that all of Valle's Internet communications about kidnapping are fantasy role-play," Gardephe wrote in his 118-page opinion.
The trial brought to light a macabre cyberspace community where millions of people discuss and exchange images and video of extraordinary brutality, much of it staged.
In March, a federal jury convicted two other men, Michael Van Hise and Christopher Asch, for conspiring to kidnap women in order to satisfy sexual fetishes for rape and murder they initially nursed online. A third co-conspirator, Richard Meltz, pleaded guilty to two kidnapping conspiracy counts. It was unclear if Gardephe's decision would impact those cases, which stemmed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's case against Valle.
After Tuesday's hearing, Gatto said Valle was "guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts."
But, Gatto said, "We don't put people in jail for their thoughts."
Valle's mother, Elizabeth Valle, said after the hearing that she planned to spend a lot of time with her son and "cook him his favorite meal."
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson and Jon Stempel)