A Manhattan federal judge Thursday dealt a potentially significant blow to the government's case against alleged "cannibal cop" Gilberto Valle, refusing to approve testimony about cellphone data that prosecutors say would show he conducted "surveillance" of intended victims.
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe also prohibited prosecutors from using several grisly images found on Valle's computers, and cleared defense testimony from the Russian webmaster of a sexual fetish website that Valle's behavior was consistent with that of other nonviolent users of the site.
Lawyers for Valle, 28, of Forest Hills, the NYPD cop accused of plotting with co-conspirators online to kidnap, abuse and eat women, said the rulings would help them keep jurors in the upcoming trial focused on defense claims that their client was fantasizing and role-playing but never intended to do anything.
"We feel the court is starting to see there is no real-world activity as regards the conspiracy to kidnap and the government's case is based on chats that live only in the world of the Internet," said public defender Julia Gatto.
When prosecutors made headlines last fall with the lurid charges, they said data from cell towers Valle's phone was using would show "surveillance" of some women he discussed in his chats by proving his presence on the blocks where they lived or worked on certain dates.
Since then, Gardephe said, the government has reviewed 3,500 of Valle's cell connections over a year to try to link him with targets, changed the alleged dates and targets it wants to present to the jury, and has backed off its claim that the data could narrow his location to a block -- now claiming only that he was in the "vicinity" of his alleged targets.
The judge said prosecutors haven't shown that the methodology they are using to analyze Valle's location is "sufficiently reliable to be able to be offered at trial."
Gardephe said he would give prosecutors one more chance, on the day the trial starts, to have an FBI expert try to convince him the cell tower evidence is reliable. The trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 25.
The only evidence prosecutors have publicly disclosed of surveillance, other than the cell data, is a visit Valle paid with his wife to a woman in Maryland.
At Thursday's hearing, prosecutors also disclosed for the first time that one of Valle's alleged abduction targets was an 18-year-old student who played softball at Archbishop Molloy High School. They contend that cell data show he was in the vicinity of the school on a Saturday in May last year, and told Gardephe the softball team practiced on Saturdays.