Accounts differ as Sarah Palin e-mail hacking case is sent to court in Knoxville

Sarah Palin took the stand in the case of a young man who hacked into her email account in 2008.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010

KNOXVILLE, TENN. -- Even without Sarah, the First Dude and Bristol, the soap opera playing to packed courtrooms here wouldn't lack for characters.

There's the admittedly mischievous college student, affecting an I-don't-give-a-darn 'tude with ankle socks exposing bare legs under the sober gray suit. There's the military-dentist mom and the chagrined father, who also happens to be a Democrat and a longtime elected member of the state's legislature. Then there are the Democratic administration's prosecutors arguing on behalf of Sarah Palin, the vice presidential pick on the losing Republican ticket.

They've all been thrown together by a case of high-tech shenanigans, a ghost of the election past. In September 2008, less than two months before the presidential election, Palin's personal e-mail account -- gov.palin@yahoo.com -- was hacked, exploding into a news-dominating distraction for a Republican campaign that already had plenty to worry about.

Friday morning, Palin, entourage and security detail in tow, swung through here to confront her interloper, David Kernell -- a mop-haired 22-year-old redhead with long sideburns and a sly smile -- who could get 50 years in prison if convicted. Gawkers, drawn by Palin's celebrity sheen, pressed into the magnolia-lined courthouse square to catch a glimpse of the darling of the "tea party" movement. "Cool," gushed Scott Sullivan, who works at a nearby mortgage company. "She's really skinny!"

Of course, Kernell, an economics major before leaving school to concentrate on his defense, hasn't felt charmed by Palin. He told WMC-TV of Memphis that "she's not my type."

Kernell, who was 20 at the time of the breach, doesn't deny cracking Palin's account and changing the password to something dear to every dorm resident's heart: "popcorn." But he has said it was just "a college prank." Prosecutors argue that he was out to torpedo her candidacy and that he committed a crime by tapping in and posting personal information, such as e-mails and contact lists, on the Internet, using the screen name "rubico."

Either way, the case comes at a time when the FBI is cracking down on cybercrime, which it ranks as one of its top three priorities. The Palin case is unusual because 95 percent of federal criminal cases end in pleas and don't go to trial; defense attorneys declined to say whether a plea deal was discussed for Kernell.

Palin was all smiles as she sashayed into Courtroom 4 at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Federal Courthouse, a neo-Georgian, red-brick gem that the federal government bought cheap from private-schools magnate Chris Whittle when things went bad for his telecom empire. The courthouse sits in downtown Knoxville, just down the road from the University of Tennessee football stadium, which holds 102,000 fans in a city of 170,000 residents.

Accompanied by her husband, Todd -- the officially erstwhile, but perhaps forevermore, "First Dude" -- Sarah Palin wore her signature rimless, rectangular glasses, a black skirt suit with a shimmery American flag lapel pin, pumps and black nylons. As she entered the courtroom, she walked past Kernell's mother, Lt. Col. Lillian Landrigan, a military dentist who sat in the front row with a wrap over her knees because of the overly exuberant air conditioning.

E-mails exposed

On the witness stand, Palin smiled demurely and assented when Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Weddle asked whether he could call her "Governor Palin." Within minutes, the former Alaskan governor was recounting the moment in September 2008 when she learned on the television news in her Michigan hotel room that her e-mail contact list and countless personal e-mails and photos were floating for all to see in cyberspace. Secret Service agents, scooped by TV news reporters, burst in minutes later to say they had "bad news," she said.

In her memoir, "Going Rogue," Palin wondered "what kind of a creep" would hack her account, which was set up by a state employee at her request and which she accessed on a "red BlackBerry." On Friday, she refrained from name-calling, but lamented over and over as prosecutors displayed what became public. Jurors saw e-mails from her mother and mother-in-law; her sister, Heather; her daughters, Willow and Bristol. One e-mail referenced "Big Momma."

"I'd be 'Big Momma,' " Palin said brightly, sticking out her chin the way she does, and eliciting smiles in the jury box and audience of 200 spectators.


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