Gilberto Valle, the so-called "Cannibal Cop," walks out of Manhattan...

Gilberto Valle, the so-called "Cannibal Cop," walks out of Manhattan Federal Court with family members including his mother, Elizabeth, left, after U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe overturned the conviction in Manhattan on Tuesday July 1, 2014. Credit: Bryan Smith

A federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday released so-called "cannibal cop" Gilberto Valle and reversed his controversial 2013 conviction for conspiring to kidnap and eat women, but prosecutors said they would appeal the decision exonerating the former NYPD officer.

In a 118-page ruling issued 15 months after a jury found him guilty, U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe said there was insufficient evidence to uphold the verdict because Valle's actions were limited to Internet fantasy chats with men he never knew about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knew.

"The nearly year long conspiracy alleged by the government was one in which no one was kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place and no real world non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone," Gardephe wrote.

At a court hearing to announce the ruling Tuesday, Valle -- who had been jailed for 21 months -- hugged his attorneys and waved to family members. He left the Manhattan federal lockup walking hand in hand with his mother just before 2 p.m., and apologized to "everyone who's been hurt by my actions."

"I'm tired," said Valle, who lost his wife, his job and custody of his baby daughter as a result of the case. "I want to go home and spend time with my family."

His defense team portrayed the ruling as a victory for core freedoms. "This case is about bedrock values," Gatto said. "In America, we do have freedom of thought. The government cannot be in charge of our thoughts."

But prosecutors said they still believed Valle was guilty, and persuaded Gardephe to order $100,000 bail, home detention at a relative's house in Queens and a mental health assessment after unsuccessfully urging the judge to keep Valle locked up as a flight risk and danger to the community.

"The government certainly respects the court's decision, but we believe the jury got it right," prosecutor Hadassa Waxman said.

Valle, 30, a six-year NYPD officer, was charged in 2012 when his wife contacted the FBI after discovering visits via his laptop to a kinky "dark fetish" website and chats with like-minded voyeurs about abusing women. He maintained it was all role-playing and never serious.

He also was charged with misusing an NYPD database to research some of the women -- who included a former college friend and a high school student. Gardephe upheld his conviction on that charge Tuesday, but it carries a maximum sentence of only a year in prison.

At trial last year, defense lawyers noted that Valle had engaged in dozens of kinky Internet chats the government conceded were fantasies, and that in the ones deemed serious he lied about his identity, never gave women's true identities, never met his alleged co-conspirators, lied about having various tools to use in the plots and let alleged target dates for kidnappings pass without notice.

Gardephe jailed Valle before trial and let the case go to the jury, but in Tuesday's ruling he echoed most of the defense objections, finding that Valle did no more than engage in "deeply misogynistic chats."

"The presence and quantity of concededly fictitious and fantastical elements in the chats and emails . . . precludes any reasonable inference that Valle actually intended to kidnap a woman," he wrote.

Gardephe also criticized prosecutors for improperly emphasizing Valle's deviant sexual tastes and status as a police officer in their summations.

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