KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A former college student charged with hacking Sarah Palin’s e-mail account fears some jurors in heavily Republican East Tennessee could be dazzled when the conservative star testifies.
Jury selection begins Tuesday and Palin’s testimony could soon follow in the case against 22-year-old David Kernell.
He was a University of Tennessee student majoring in economics when prosecutors say he hacked into the Yahoo! account Palin sometimes used for state business. At the time she was Alaska’s governor and the GOP candidate for vice president.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips has denied a defense motion to have prospective jurors answer a questionnaire asking if they have strong political feelings about Palin. Kernell’s attorney, Wade Davies, cited Palin’s speaking slot at a tea party movement convention and frequent television appearances. She is hugely popular with conservatives.
Convictions on all four felony charges — identity theft, wire fraud, intentionally accessing Palin’s e-mail account without authorization and obstructing an FBI investigation — could send Kernell to prison for up to 50 years.
“If I was the individual being charged I would be concerned, particularly the other party,” East Tennessee State University political analyst David Briley said. “Politics and religion are pretty close to the vest here.”
Kernell’s father, Democratic Rep. Mike Kernell of Memphis, has served in the Tennessee House since 1974. He has not been linked to the case against his son, and he declined to be interviewed Monday.
An attorney for Palin, Thomas Van Flein of Anchorage, Alaska, said in an e-mail that the former governor has been subpoenaed by prosecutors “and she will honor that commitment.” Van Flein declined to comment about the case or about how Palin feels about it.
Prosecutors predicted the trial could last up to 10 days but would not say when Palin would testify. Kernell has been free on bond since pleading not guilty after the indictment was unsealed in October 2008.
He is accused of accessing Palin’s Yahoo! e-mail account by answering a series of personal security questions, resetting the password to “popcorn,” making screen shots and posting the contents online using the nickname “rubico.”
The McCain campaign in 2008 described it as a “shocking invasion of the governor’s privacy and a violation of law” when someone intruded into Palin’s personal account and a few personal messages that Palin received were shown.
Palin’s account was accessed after news reports that her administration used Yahoo accounts as an alternative to government e-mail that could be subject to Alaska’s Open Records Act. An Internet security expert previously said the hacker’s trail was easy for investigators to follow.
Davies, the attorney for Kernell, tried to subpoena Palin’s state e-mails for the hacking case but the judge said it was just a fishing expedition.
Davies has also unsuccessfully challenged the search warrant that investigators used to confiscate Kernell’s laptop at his Knoxville apartment and a Knoxville magistrate’s authority to issue search warrants for records of e-mail providers outside of East Tennessee. Yahoo is located in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Prosecutors have declined to comment about the trial or government witnesses.
A county GOP official in Knoxville said Palin will get plenty of politically friendly attention outside the courthouse.
“People are excited that she is coming because she is very well thought of,” said Phyllis Severance, first vice chairwoman of the Knox County GOP. “The rank-and-file of the party will probably come just to get a chance to speak to her and shake hands.”