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'Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop' review: When is thought a crime?

Gilberto Valle in HBO 's documentary film "Thought

Gilberto Valle in HBO 's documentary film "Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop." Credit: HBO

DOCUMENTARY "Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop"

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The celebrated 2012 case of the so-called "Cannibal Cop," Gilberto Valle, who, when he wasn't on duty as a member of the NYPD spent his hours roaming deviant, sex-oriented websites, sharing fantasies of abduction, rape, cruelty and cannibalism. He was indicted as a member of a conspiracy to kidnap and torture as many as 100 women. The problem for prosecutors -- and not a big one, it turned out -- was that no crime was committed, other than Valle's unauthorized use of the police computer system to gather data on alleged "victims-to-be." Did the government prevent horrible crimes from occurring? Or was Valle being persecuted simply for offering up his admittedly sordid fantasies to the porous world of the Web?

MY SAY While it certainly provided a feast for headline writers of the New York tabloids, the Valle case was also something of a small-scale constitutional crisis: Could a man, however twisted in his sexual fantasies (which, in Valle's case, included cooking and eating women) be prosecuted for what he thought, desired and expressed on the Internet? Director Erin Lee Carr seems to let her sympathies run toward the rather woebegone Valle, but it's hard to look at the case and not agree that the worst perversions of the Cannibal Cop case were those being perpetrated against justice itself. What feels like it's missing here is some kind of parallel drawn to the war on terror, and the theory of pre-emptive law-enforcement that leads to racial profiling, unauthorized surveillance and other offenses against personal liberty.

BOTTOM LINE The scariest thing about "Thought Crimes" isn't Valle. It's the unseen (for good reason) prosecutors who think mind control is a valuable target of their time and government resources. That, and the lone juror interviewed who tries to rationalize why she voted to convict Valle.

He might, she says, have gone on to commit a crime. Who knows? And who wants that on their conscience? This is no way to run a constitutional democracy. "Thought Crimes" may have a little less of a narrative than it needs to fill out its running time, but it still raises important issues in a stylish way.

(Valle was convicted of kidnapping conspiracy in March 2013 and spent 21 months in jail. But the conviction was later overturned, with the judge ruling the evidence supported Valle's contention that he was just engaged in "fantasy role-play." The government appealed; that appeal was scheduled to be argued on Tuesday.)


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