Palin e-mail snoop sentenced to a year in custody

David Kernell faces the music for 2008 intrusion into candidate's account

David Kernell

Former college student David Kernell, whose criminal prying into Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account caused an uproar two months before the 2008 presidential election, was today sentenced to a year and a day in federal custody by a judge who recommended that the time be served in a Knoxville, Tenn. halfway house. Corrections officials could reject that recommendation and send Kernell to prison, according to a story on KnoxNews.com. He will also face three years of probation.

(Update, Jan. 13, 2011: It's prison, not halfway house.)

(Update, Jan. 30, 2012: Court affirms felony conviction.) 

On April 30, Kernell was found guilty of one count of misdemeanor computer fraud and one count of obstruction of justice, a felony. He was found not guilty of wire fraud and the jury deadlocked on a fourth charge of identity theft. His sentencing had been delayed a number of times.

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A recent court filing by his lawyer contended that Kernell's actions represented "an aberration from his normal course of conduct" and that his "youth and emotional condition justify" a lighter sentence. In addition, his attorney argued, probation or alternative sentencing has been applied in "many" similar cases.

Meanwhile, in its memorandum to the judge, prosecutors noted that sentencing guidelines call for "a range of 15 to 21 months" and "the government respectfully submits that a mid-range sentence of 18 months in prison is consistent with the statutory purposes of sentencing."

The judge indicated early in this morning's sentencing hearing that Kernell would not get off with probation. From Knoxnews.com:

U.S. District Thomas Phillips could make his decision about David Kernell's fate before lunch.

During court proceedings this morning, Phillips agreed Kernell should get a sentencing break, citing "the unique circumstances of this case."

But the judge said he is rejecting defense attorney Wade Davies' request for probation as well as the federal government's requested an 18-month prison term.

Kernell was a 20-year-old college student at the University of Tennessee when he accessed Palin's Yahoo e-mail account by guessing the password with the help of information gleaned through Wikipedia. He then changed the password and helped spread the new one on the Internet. The case drew international attention because its cast of characters included not only Palin, then the Republican nominee for vice president, but Kernell's father, Michael Kernell, a longtime Democratic state legislator, as well as the notorious Internet message board 4chan and controversial whistleblower Web site Wikileaks, both of which were involved in circulating the e-mail and pictures obtained from Palin's account.

During his trial, Kernell's lawyer attempted to portray his client's actions as a prank that spun out of control.

Prosecutors would have none of that excuse, nor would Palin, who after the verdict wrote on Facebook: "Violating the law, or simply invading someone's privacy for political gain, has long been repugnant to Americans' sense of fair play. As Watergate taught us, we rightfully reject illegally breaking into candidates' private communications for political intrigue in an attempt to derail an election."

The invocation of Watergate was silly, in my opinion, but Kernell's violation of Palin's privacy was real and more than unfair, it was illegal. He deserved to be punished, but the punishment needed to fit the crime. That did not happen here.

In this case, there was no serious harm to Palin, her family or the McCain/Palin candidacy.  Kernell's arrest, trial and conviction had already created a powerful deterrent for anyone who might be tempted to repeat his fishing expedition. And Kernell is a first-time offender, who will carry a criminal record for the rest of his life with or without jail time.

A fine, community service and probation would have best served the interests of justice.

I realize that reasonable people may disagree. Unfortunately for Kernell, one of them was wearing a robe.

(Note: An earlier version of this post failed to include mention of the judge's recommendation that Kernell serve his sentence in a halfway house because I was not aware of that fact at the time.) 

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