NEW YORK (AFP) - A former New York policeman found guilty of plotting to kidnap, kill and eat women - including his wife - was released from jail on Tuesday by a federal judge who overturned his conviction.
The trial of 30-year-old Gilberto Valle - dubbed the "cannibal cop" - gripped the Big Apple and fanned global headlines, exposing the lurid world of cannibal fantasists. He was convicted in March 2013 and faced life in prison, but was freed from jail just 21 months into his sentence because of lack of evidence.
Valle scoured websites catering to the gruesome fetishes of so-called "death-porn" enthusiasts and detailed his plans to abduct women, boasting that he would torture, kill and eat them. He drew up a detailed list of his potential victims, including friends and his wife, the mother of his child, who eventually turned him in to the FBI and testified against him in court.
But in a 118-page ruling, US District Court Judge Paul Gardephe said no matter how disturbing Valle's "deviant and depraved" fantasies may have been, no actual crime took place. "No one was ever kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place, and no real world, non-Internet based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone," he wrote. "Despite the highly disturbing nature of Valle's deviant and depraved sexual interests, his chats and emails about these interests are not sufficient - standing alone - to make out the elements of conspiracy to commit kidnapping."
At a brief Manhattan court hearing on Tuesday, where prosecutors said they would appeal, the judge ordered Valle released to home detention on a $100,000 bond. He ordered Valle to remain at his mother's home in Queens until the appeal is heard, wear an electronic monitoring band, be barred from using the Internet and undergo a mental health exam. He is not allowed to leave New York.
"It validates what we have been saying since the very beginning of this case - he is guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts," said lawyer Julia Gatto. "As Judge Gardephe has validated, we don't put people in jail for their thoughts," she added.
Ms Gatto said she was not concerned by the prospect of an appeal and that her client was just anxious to get home to his family.
"He is very relieved, very tired, prison has been hard," she said. "He has to pick up the pieces of his life, he has lost a lot during this case: his wife, his child, his job."
While Valle's lawyers argued that the policeman was guilty only of sick online fantasies, prosecutors said he had "crossed the line" into reality and was actively planning to act out his online plot, even if no women were ever harmed.
Valle was a "sadistic person," said US Attorney Randall Jackson, summing up his case at the trial.
An FBI agent testified to finding hundreds of downloaded pages on Valle's computer about rape, torture and cannibalism. He was arrested in late 2012 and convicted of conspiracy to kidnap and a second count of illegally using a police database to compile a list of potential victims.
Judge Gardephe upheld the second conviction, which was punishable by a maximum of one year in prison. A spokesman for the US Marshals Service confirmed to AFP that Valle was released. US media reported that his mother was in court on Tuesday and eager to welcome her son home. Valle's wife has divorced him.