KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A former University of Tennessee student who hacked into Sarah Palin’s e-mail account during the 2008 presidential campaign was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in custody and three years probation, with the judge recommending a halfway house instead of prison.
The sentence by U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Phillips fell short of the 18 months in prison sought by federal prosecutors to send a message to would-be hackers during political campaigns. But it went beyond the probation recommended by defense attorneys for 22-year-old David Kernell. The additional day of his sentence will make him eligible for a reduced sentence for good behavior.
Phillips said Kernell should get mental health treatment, based on Friday comments from his defense that he has had conditions including depression since he was 11.
Kernell hugged family members and friends after hearing the sentence but declined comment as they left the courthouse with his attorney. Kernell apologized during the hearing.
“I am not going to make any kind of excuses,” he said. “I’d like to apologize to the Palin family.”
“For the rest of my life I am going to be ashamed, feel guilty for what I have done,” he said.
Palin, who did not attend the sentencing, previously declined comment about Kernell’s punishment and said it should be up to the judge. Her attorney did not answer an e-mail Friday seeking comment.
A jury in late April convicted Kernell of unauthorized access to a protected computer and destroying records to impede a federal investigation. Jurors acquitted him of wire fraud and deadlocked on an identity theft charge. He was an economics major when he deduced the answers to security questions and intruded into Palin’s private e-mail account weeks before the 2008 election.
The former Alaska governor and her daughter Bristol testified at the trial that the hacking, followed by Kernell’s online bragging and providing a password and Palin family telephone numbers to others, caused them emotional hardship.
Palin and her daughter submitted victim impact statements. The chief of the U.S. Probation Office in Knoxville declined a request from The Associated Press to view the document.
Prosecutors in a pre-sentence filing said Kernell, a Democratic legislator’s son, had posted online that he found “nothing that would derail her campaign as I had hoped, all I saw was personal stuff, some clerical stuff from when she was governor … And pictures of her family … I read everything, every little Blackberry confirmation … all the pictures, and there was nothing…”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krotoski told the judge the case is unique, with no theft of identity or stealing property but rather an attempt to “influence the democratic process.”
“He wanted to derail a national campaign,” Krotoski said. “The only reason he failed was because he found nothing incriminating in the account.”
Krotoski said the punishment sentence should deter anyone else who might attempt such hacking in the 2012 elections.
“The message should be clear. You should be subjected to prison time,” he said.
Davies, in asking for probation, told the judge there was no criminal intent or planning and the hacking was “just something that happened on the spur of the moment.”
The judge said in announcing his decision that a “firm, but not reactionary, sentence is required in this case.”
A statement on Palin’s’ Facebook page after the trial compared the case to the 1972 Watergate break-in at Democratic headquarters that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“As Watergate taught us, we rightfully reject illegally breaking into candidates’ private communications for political intrigue in an attempt to derail an election,” the Facebook post said.
Defense attorneys said Kernell had mental health conditions, which were not brought up at his late-April trial.
“Mr. Kernell’s development doesn’t necessarily correspond with other people who were born the same year he was,” defense attorney Wade Davies said during the sentencing hearing. Davies said an evaluation has shown that Kernell was “trying to make adult decisions from a child’s perspective.”
Kernell will be allowed to report for the sentence when the Bureau of Prisons decides whether to accept the judge’s recommendation that he be sent to the Midway Rehabilitation Center.
“They usually take the recommendation but they are not required to,” the judge said.
The judge said the maximum possible penalty for destroying or concealing records to impede an investigation is 20 years, and that applying the guidelines to Kernell, the penalty range was between 15 months and 21 months.
Phillips said during the hearing that the sentence was not based on any victim’s notoriety.
“The importance of privacy, regardless of the individual, needs to be protected,” he said.
Kernell’s father, state Rep. Mike Kernell of Memphis, did not attend the sentencing but afterward told The Associated Press in Nashville that he has “serious respect for the judge’s decision and the time he took to make it.”
The chief prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Weddle, said after the hearing that he was satisfied with the sentence.
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Nashville contributed to this report.