Palin e-mail hacker starts prison term

By Bobbie Johnson
Technology reporter, BBC News

image captionSarah Palin has suggested the incident was the reason she failed to reach the White House

A man who broke into Sarah Palin's e-mail has been imprisoned - despite being told he might be spared jail.

David Kernell, 23, was found guilty last year of illegally accessing Mrs Palin's e-mail during the 2008 presidential campaign.

At the time, a judge suggested he should serve his year-long sentence in a halfway house.

But after intervention from US government officials he is now in federal prison, the BBC has learned.

Officials confirmed that Mr Kernell reported on 10 January to begin serving his time at a federal corrections institute in Ashland, Kentucky.

That is not the situation that his friends and family were hoping for, however.

During a hearing in November, Judge Thomas Phillips indicated that Mr Kernell's sentence of one year and one day should be served at a halfway house to reflect the case's "unique circumstances".

"Even if the defendant serves his sentence at a halfway house, this combined with a criminal conviction is significant punishment," he said at the time, adding that it would mark "a sufficient restriction of the defendant's liberty".

The US Bureau of Prisons, however, has decided to make Mr Kernell serve out his term in the low-security prison camp nearly 300 miles from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The move comes more than two years after the virtual break-in took place, at the height of the former Alaska governor's failed campaign to win the US vice presidency.

Using the online pseudonym "rubico", Mr Kernell - a student whose father is a senior Democrat politician in Tennessee - answered a series of security questions that gave him access to her private inbox, and then shared the details online.

A copy was retained by Wikileaks, the whistle-blowing website currently at the centre of a controversy over leaked US diplomatic cables, and details of her messages were published in several media outlets.

As a result, Ms Palin's family received abusive emails and phone calls. A subsequent FBI investigation led to Mr Kernell's arrest five days later.

Although he was eventually charged with four crimes - including identity theft and fraud - a court in Knoxville, Tennessee, only found him guilty of two lesser counts after a two-week trial last May.

The US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would not comment on why Judge Phillips' recommendations had not been followed, but said decisions concerning inmates took into account a number of factors.

The BOP is not bound by judicial recommendations, one legal expert said federal sentencing was often "arbitrary".

"The judge can give either incarceration or probation, but if it's incarceration the state gives power to the Bureau of Prisons to determine the nature of incarceration," said Professor Robert Weisberg, director of the criminal justice center at Stanford University in California.

"There is not a general or uniform US rule," he added. "There is huge local variation."

Ms Palin - now seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 - has been in the headlines again after the fatal shootings in Arizona that left six dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life.

Critics have singled out aggressive political rhetoric as a possible aggravating factor in the shooting, with some specifically criticising Ms Palin for using an online graphic containing crosshair symbols that marked targeted Democratic districts, including that of Ms Giffords, in the recent US mid-term elections.

In a video posted online, the former governor said such suggestions constituted a "blood libel".

"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," she said, rejecting claims that the vitriolic political climate was an incitement to violence.

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