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David Christopher Kernell walked into federal court Wednesday morning in handcuffs, shackles and tennis shoes to plead not guilty to hacking Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s personal e-mail account.
He can stay out of jail for now as long as he stays off his computer.
The University of Tennessee econmics major, who is the son of state Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, turned himself in after being indicted by a federal grand jury.
The single-count indictment, returned Tuesday and unsealed Wednesday, alleges that on approximately Sept. 16, 2008, Kernell obtained unauthorized access to Palin’s personal e-mail account by resetting the account password. Palin is governor of Alaska and the vice-presidential running mate of GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
According to the indictment, after answering a series of security questions that allowed him to reset the password and gain access to the e-mail account, Kernell read the contents of the account and made screenshots of the e-mail directory, e-mail content and other personal information.
According to the indictment, Kernell posted screenshots of the e-mail and other personal information to a public Web site, along with the new password.
If convicted, Kernell faces a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and a three-year term of probation.
A federal grand jury in Chattanooga ended a Sept. 23 session without an indictment after investigators last month searched Kernell’s apartment in Knoxville.
Three students accompanied by Maryville attorney Phil Reed met with the Chattanooga grand jury last month.
"Cyber crime is the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority," Richard Lambert, special agent in charge of the FBI Knoxville office, said in a press release this morning.
The case is being investigated by the FBI’s Knoxville and Anchorage field offices, with Agent Scott Wenger acting as the lead investigator.
It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Weddle in Knoxville and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krotoski of the Department of Justice Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section in Washington.
Kernell’s father said last month he knew bloggers had said his son had claimed responsibility for breaking into Palin’s private account. He said he had nothing to do with the case and didn’t know anything about it.
A person using the e-mail address rubico10(at)yahoo.com posted a message to an online forum about how he used Yahoo Mail’s password-recovery tool to obtain Palin’s password by entering Palin’s birth date, ZIP code and where Palin met her husband.
Kernell’s case could go to trial Dec. 16.
"David Kernell surrendered voluntarily this morning after being informed of the charges," said his lawyer, Wade Davies. "We look forward to (the case’s) ultimate resolution in court."
The judge granted Kernell release as long as he stays off his computer, unless it’s for college purposes, and has no contact with Palin or her family.
Kernell can’t leave east Tennessee without written permission from his probation officer. That includes going home to Memphis.
Federal prosecutors wouldn’t say whether their witness list includes Palin
(Knoxville, Tenn., News Sentinel Staff writer Jamie Satterfield and The Commercial Appeal of Memphis contributed to this story.)