The very thing that might have offered Valle some release—speaking openly about his fetish—was too explosive for him to contemplate. So he kept it all a secret for as long as he could. Once he was sharing his secret with strangers on the Internet (the basis of the government’s conspiracy argument), is it possible that that danger, that risk, only made it more exciting to Valle, harder for him to stop, and easier for him to escalate into action?
“I understand how the evidence could be construed in that way,” says Dietz. “I see him as many, many steps removed from the kind of person that might start to take action.” Dietz is convinced that “to become a sex criminal acting on your paraphilia, you need more than your paraphilia.” He searched for evidence of something in Valle’s personality—“all the past actions and aggressive actions and character flaws that show us that he’s that one-in-1,000 monster. And I couldn’t find them.” By Dietz’s reckoning, the circumstances surrounding the chats speak volumes about how ludicrous they were. If Valle ever had a fleeting thought of actually harming a woman, Dietz says, “he certainly did everything in his power to ensure that he would be immediately identified as the offender if he did so,” using a traceable IP address and a shared computer. Even Valle’s repeated web searches for chloroform recipes or the addresses of the women he fantasized about failed to concern Dietz. “This is just like a man who has a fetish who will repeatedly go back and look at the same picture of a woman wearing a particular kind of undergarment.”
This opinion, of course, might be as suspect as any other in a pre-crime case, so Valle’s lawyers would have to employ it carefully. But even if psychiatry still offers no crystal ball for human behavior, Dietz was telling them that Valle’s thoughts, while unpleasant, were less than ominous.
“He’s the nicest guy you’d ever meet,” Dietz says.
The image of Valle as a nice guy never really emerged during last year’s trial. His wife’s tearful testimony set a darker tone early on. When she was asked in cross-examination why she refused to be interviewed by Valle’s lawyers before the trial, Mangan snapped: “You represent the man who wanted to kill me. No. I do not want to talk to you.”
So much of the prosecution’s case ended up being about the e-mails that Valle’s lawyers decided not to put Dietz or Valle on the stand, believing more detailed questions about Valle’s fetish would only distract from the conspiracy charges, which they saw as flimsy. During summations on March 7, Valle wept as he listened to his lawyer describe how his wife had left him because of the way he broadcast his fetish. “His foolishness on the Internet, his insensitive, ugly thoughts, have cost him everything,” Gatto said. She allowed that we all should be disturbed by Valle’s thoughts but drove home the notion that those thoughts simply weren’t the subject of the trial. “The conversations are preposterous. They are disturbing. They are disgusting. We should be upset that people are thinking these thoughts, but they are not criminal.”
The prosecutor, meanwhile, depicted Valle as reckless and out of control. In his summation, Randall Jackson referred back to Valle’s web searches for Kristen Ponticelli’s address. “There is something incredibly wrong just on that fact with a New York City police officer talking about killing a high-school student and then Googling to try to get information about her address,” Jackson said. “That is a man who is trying to move a plan into action.”
Then he argued the pre-crime case head-on. “Think about your favorite restaurant … If you were to find out that the chef at that restaurant had a deep-seated fantasy of poisoning all of the people in the restaurant, and that night after night he was engaging in conversations with other people about how he could poison the restaurant-goers at his restaurant, that he was researching online the different poisons, that he was communicating with people the names of certain other people who come to his restaurant all the time and saying, ‘I can’t wait to see this person drop dead when they taste this cyanide filling up their throat.’ If you found out about that and he said, ‘Oh, this is just my fantasy,’ would you continue to eat at that restaurant? Of course you wouldn’t.”
On March 12, the jury announced that they’d found Valle guilty. Valle shook his head and was taken away. His mother, who’d been there every day, asked, “What trial were they watching?” And Gatto told reporters, “This was a thought prosecution … The jury couldn’t get past the thoughts.”
At least one member of the jury disagreed. “We did what we did in good conscience,” Victor Pineiro told reporters. “Clearly, we believed his fantasy was going to step into reality … I think like an addict needs a larger and larger dose, he was needing things that were more and more real and he was progressing … He was bringing it into real life.”
Gatto, looking back, has come to think the defense’s big mistake may have been assuming the jury would recognize just how over-the-top implausible these messages were—and not be terrified by them. “It’s the most heartbreaking verdict I can ever imagine,” she says. “You have to buy into the idea that it’s all make-believe. Then it becomes almost comical.” She and her colleagues have petitioned the judge to throw out the verdict, arguing, in part, that the prosecution had turned it into a pre-crime case, scaring the jury with thoughts of what might happen. The judge is expected to decide on the motion imminently. If he upholds the conviction, Valle faces up to life in prison.