HBO’s ‘Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop’ Questions the Legality of Gruesome Fantasies

Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop isn’t true crime in the same sense as HBO’s recent docuseries The Jinx or the immensely popular podcast Serial. It doesn’t intend to solve a crime or even, really, to depict one. It’s more of a conversation starter, or a criminal justice course essay prompt: Can the law punish someone for their vile and murderous thoughts?

By now, most of us (and especially New Yorkers) are familiar with the “Cannibal Cop” case. The documentary reintroduces us to Gilberto Valle, a former NYPD officer who was arrested in 2012 and later, in March 2013, convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, murder, and eat women (including his own wife) — only to have the conviction overturned in 2014, after he had spent almost two years behind bars. What made the case so complicated is that Valle never actually committed these crimes; he’d just incessantly discussed and planned them in creepy chat rooms, going into gruesome detail about cooking and eating women. The jury convicted him based not on the outcome of his plotting, but whether the chats were sufficient evidence to prove he was going to commit these crimes.

In the documentary Thought Crimes, director Erin Lee Carr revisits this ongoing case, filming Valle at his mother’s house while he’s under house arrest. It’s an interesting watch, one of the most unsettling documentaries in recent memory even though it doesn’t portray (or recreate) any actual violence. Carr even tries to keep it darkly humorous at times, with cuts to Valle cooking meals in his kitchen or discussing his failed Match.com profile.

Valle is candid throughout and maintains his innocence, insisting that his murderous fantasies were just that: fantasies. The chats, which frequently appear on the screen, are highly disturbing, as Valle details what he wants to do to his targets — cook them in the oven, display their decapitated heads as a table centerpiece, etc. These quotes provide an eerie juxtaposition to the softspoken and understandably nervous Valle, who we watch as he awaits more news on his case. Valle gives his side of the case to Carr, who remains unbiased: Thought Crimes neither makes the claim that Valle should be in jail nor proclaims his total innocence.

That’s the entire point of Thought Crimes. It introduces viewers to the idea of real-life thought police and raises the question of whether fantasy murders are or should be illegal. Nothing in the documentary is cut and dry; instead, the more Carr delves into it, the more complicated it becomes. On one hand, Valle didn’t kidnap or murder any women; on the other, it often seems very likely that he intended to, and it can be argued that he would have gone through with it had his wife not found his Internet trail and reported him to the authorities. There is mounds of potentially damning evidence against him: The plans are detailed and terrifying; Valle used a restricted database (and therefore police resources) to facilitate his stalking of women; he posted images of these women, including his wife, online; he googled questions about making chloroform and obtaining weapons used to torture people.

Valle’s Internet habits are disturbing, but are they illegal? Or, perhaps more importantly, how will this bode for future cases involving Internet searches and chat rooms? If Valle is deemed guilty for things he said but didn’t do, it sets a dangerous and worrisome precedent — no one wants to be policed for their thoughts.

Thought Crimes, which premieres tonight on HBO, is a thought-provoking documentary that doesn’t provide any answers, but definitely brings up some interesting questions — and, if nothing else, makes the case for regularly deleting your own browser history.