Common Sense and the Cannibal Cop

18 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2015

See all articles by Thea Johnson

Thea Johnson

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School

Andrew Gilden

Willamette University - College of Law

Date Written: August 10, 2015


The Internet has created unprecedented opportunities for individuals to explore a wide range of unfamiliar and often-marginalized desires, and in doing so has also created unprecedented opportunities for the criminal justice system to monitor and punish these sexual desires. An important example of this dynamic is the recent trial of Gilberto Valle, New York City’s so-called “Cannibal Cop.” Valle, an NYPD officer, was convicted for conspiracy to kidnap several women based on a series of highly fictionalized conversations on a “dark fetish” fantasy website. Although these conversations revealed Valle’s fantasies involving kidnapping, torturing, and cannibalizing women, he had made no effort to kidnap, kill, or eat anyone, and there was no evidence that his online discussions went beyond graphic exchanges and digital role-playing.

The “Cannibal Cop” case provides a useful template for examining the ethical boundaries of applying criminal laws to the precarious realm of Internet-mediated sexuality. This Essay highlights some of the important questions raised by the prosecution of the Cannibal Cop, and it emphasizes the need to carefully approach the important, yet inherently blurry line between “fantasy” and “reality.” We caution against overreliance on "common sense" in cases like this, given the incomplete lay understandings of how people use the Internet to explore sexual desires and the risk that legal decisions will be driven by disapproval of these desires.

Keywords: criminal law, ethics, First Amendment, fantasy, Internet Law

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Thea and Gilden, Andrew, Common Sense and the Cannibal Cop (August 10, 2015). 11 Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties 313 (2015), Available at SSRN:

Thea Johnson

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School ( email )

217 N. Fifth Street
Camden, NJ 08102
United States

Andrew Gilden (Contact Author)

Willamette University - College of Law ( email )

245 Winter St. SE
Salem, OR 97301
United States

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