KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A college student who hacked into former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s e-mail account and posted some of its contents on the Internet was found guilty Friday.
After four days of deliberations, a federal jury found David Kernell, the 22-year-old son of a Democratic Tennessee state legislator, guilty of obstruction of justice, a felony, and unauthorized access of a computer, a misdemeanor.
Kernell was cleared of a wire fraud charge, and the jury could not agree on a verdict on a charge of identity theft.
Judge Thomas Phillips declared a mistrial on the identity theft charge but did not set a date for sentencing.
The obstruction charge alone carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, while the misdemeanor count is punishable by up to one year in jail.
Palin issued a statement on her Facebook page, thanking the jury and prosecutors and explaining the case’s importance.
“Besides the obvious invasion of privacy and security concerns surrounding this issue, many of us are concerned about the integrity of our country’s political elections. America’s elections depend upon fair competition,” the statement said.
“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.”
A subdued Kernell had no comment, and he was released on bond while barred from using a computer except for school assignments and e-mail.
Kernell’s attorney had argued during the weeklong trial the hacking of Palin’s e-mail account amounted to nothing more than a college prank, but prosecutors said Kernell had hoped to derail the Republican’s campaign.
Palin and her daughter Bristol each testified about the disruption the break-in had caused to both their personal lives and the campaign.
“If there’s any unauthorized access to computers, the Department of Justice takes that very seriously,” said prosecutor Mark Krotoski after the verdict was announced in U.S. District Court.
In September 2008, Kernell did a little research and some guesswork to answer security questions and gain access to Palin’s personal e-mail account. At the time, published reports had questioned whether the then-Alaska governor had improperly used her personal e-mail to conduct official business.
Kernell said he found nothing incriminating, but posted some of the account’s contents online, along with a new password he assigned it.
“The conduct was serious,” Krotoski said. “He had every opportunity to pull out and not proceed.”
Editing by Andrew Stern and Todd Eastham