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Does Pennsylvania prosecute Internet 'thought crimes?'

Readers in Pittsburgh have probably heard the case of the "cannibal cop," the police officer who was convicted recently of conspiring to kidnap, murder and consume four women, including the defendant's wife. The case was noteworthy because the prosecution's case largely consisted of Internet chats between the defendant and others online where they would discuss acts of cannibalism. In fact, the defendant never took significant steps to turn these chats, which some characterize as online role-playing, into a real-world attack on any of the women.

The conviction worries some observers in Pennsylvania. They foresee it as the possible start of a trend of people facing criminal charges for disturbing but legally protected speech.

Most of the evidence against the defendant in came from transcripts of online chats between him and others on a fetish website. In 24 of these chats, the defendant and his friends would imagine scenarios where they would take women, rape them, kill them and eat their flesh. Federal prosecutors contended that 21 of the chats were pure "fantasy" but singled out three of them as "real" plans to carry out attacks in the real world. To justify that distinction, they pointed other Internet activity conducted by the defendant, such as searching for a recipe for chloroform and downloading pictures of the women he was fantasizing about.

So what does this mean for the rest of us? Is a Pittsburgh resident risking prison time by Googling a sexual fantasy that they would never carry out in real life but might seem strange or disturbing to others? It appears that time will tell.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Is it a crime to think evil thoughts?" Gabrielle Banks, April 8, 2013

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