Gilberto Valle was a New York City police officer who was arrested and convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping in 2012, and who was released on appeal in 2014. The nature of his crimes was particularly grisly, so this write-up will contain disturbing material.
Gilberto Valle was a member of a website dealing with extreme fetishes, where he discussed his fantasies that centered around the torture, rape, murder and cannibalization of women. Although all are disturbing, it is the last one that shocked people the most, and earned him the nickname "The Cannibal Cop" in the more sensationalistic media, such as The New York Post and the New York Daily News. One of the most immediate targets of Valle's fantasies was his separated wife, who found evidence of Valle's fantasies and reported him to police. Along with descriptions of his fantasies, he also discussed with his online associates specific plans for kidnapping and killing his wife. And, in perhaps the most overt act of his plans, he illegally accessed a law enforcement database that he had access to as an officer to find information on his wife. In 2013, he was convicted and went to prison. However, in July of 2014, a judge found that there was no evidence that he had the actual intention of carrying out the acts he discussed, and reversed his conviction. Valle is now a free man.
Given the spectacular nature of his crimes, and how heavily it was covered in the media, I actually couldn't find much biographical information about Valle. He apparently didn't have any prior criminal convictions, and given the fact that he was hired as a police officer, he must have had a fairly normal demeanor. I have not read any other allegations against him, or attempts to link him to unsolved crimes. Apparently, he is just a man who happened to have some very unusual fantasies. In away, Valle himself is not the most important thing in this case, as much as the issues of how much the internet has blurred the line between reality and fantasy. The details of the case, including Valle's job as a police officer and the unusual nature of his fetishes, are in a way secondary to that. The largest way that they are relevant is the large gap between Valle's public persona, and his private desires.
Although it might not be true for everyone, I imagine that most people have fantasies (sexual or otherwise) that they wouldn't actually want to act on. And I imagine that most people, unless they have been extremely careful, have said things on the internet that they wouldn't want to have recorded and used against them. Chance comments that would be forgotten forever in speech are now recorded forever in e-Mails and IM logs. I will use a less grisly example of the same sort of situation:
If someone says in casual conversation "Sometimes I want to kill my boss", it is probably not legally actionable, especially as it can not be proven that they actually said that. Online, however, that same statement can be stored forever. But even that is a vague expression and not a concrete plan. However, say someone says "I really want to kill my boss. I know that they live at 123 Maple Lane and get home from work at 9 PM, and I've driven by a couple of times and it doesn't look like there would be any witnesses", that person has gone from expressing an emotion to making specific plans, and committing overt acts. But even then, it not clear that these acts are the actual prelude to a criminal act, as much as a way to continue the fantasy. Taking away the shocking nature of Valle's fantasies, he was pretty much in that situation: adding details to his fantasies as a way to strengthen the fantasy, not because he actually wanted to commit it.
I am not in possession of either all the legal theory or the complete facts of the case, so I don't know exactly why or how the first judge decided to convict, and the second judge decided to acquit. Obviously there is good reason to think that people who plot precise crimes online are indeed dangerous and that this should be considered overt acts. There is also good reason to think that if all of a person's online presence was scanned for dangerous thoughts, that many people who are totally innocent would be unjustly convicted. The attention-getting nature of Valle's ideation blurs that underlying issues. It seems likely that while this is one of the first criminal cases to deal with the issue, it will be far from the last.