NEW YORK — Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of a New Jersey man and a former Manhattan school librarian charged with conspiring to rape, torture and murder women and children, a case that grew from the prosecution of a New York police officer on cannibalism charges.
About 90 prospective jurors will be introduced to the case before they answer nine written questions meant to ensure they can remain fair and impartial despite the lurid nature of some of the trial evidence.
Michael Vanhise, 23, of Trenton, N.J., and Robert Christopher Asch, 61, of New York, are charged with plotting from spring 2011 to January 2013 to kidnap, rape, torture and kill women and children, including Vanhise's wife, stepdaughter, sister-in-law and her children. They are also charged with conspiring early last year in a plot against another woman.
No one was harmed and defense lawyers insist the charges arose from a misinterpretation by the government of the sharing online of sexual fantasies among the men.
Prospective jurors will be told that Vanhise came to the attention of law enforcement because of Internet chats he had with former New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle. Valle was convicted last year of conspiracy in a plot to kidnap, kill and eat women. He is awaiting sentencing.
U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe plans to read to jurors an introduction to the questionnaire that says the government is likely to introduce emails and recorded conversations between the defendants and others involving discussions of kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing women and children.
Defense attorneys were expected to "argue, among other things, that their emails and conversations were sexual fantasy and imaginary role-play, that they never acted on, or intended to act on, these fantasies, and that they never intended to, and never did, kidnap, rape, torture, or murder anyone," according to the introduction.
The judge planned to warn jurors that they will not be asked to address the legality of a sexual fetish website where Vanhise and Asch first met and where sexually violent and sexually deviant conduct is portrayed in images and videos.
"It is vitally important that those chosen to serve on this jury not have such strong reactions to these topics and practices that it will be difficult for them to be fair and impartial," the introduction adds.
Among other questions, jurors will be asked how much time they typically spend on the Internet and whether they can be fair despite evidence showing Vanhise and Asch accessed a website devoted to deviant sexual behavior, including highly sexualized violent conduct, bondage and sadomasochism.
Both men have been held without bail since their arrests.