Sarah Palin's student hacker has trial delayed

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The complexity of a computer crime trumped the need for a speedy trial in the case of the son of a Democratic Tennessee state lawmaker charged with breaking into the email account of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

US Magistrate Judge Clifford Shirley agreed to a joint request from prosecutors and defence attorneys for more time to prepare for the trial of University of Tennessee student David Kernell, 20, of Knoxville.

"A lot of this is in computer language that a lot of lawyers couldn't just read and get," said Assistant US Attorney Greg Weddle.

The trial of Kernell, charged with one count of tapping into the Alaska governor's email in September, was moved from next month to April 20. The son of longtime State Representative Mike Kernell of Memphis, chairman of Tennessee's House Government Operations Committee, faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

In court, Kernell was asked if he understood he was giving up his right a speedy trial.

"Yes, sir. I understand," the economics major told the magistrate.

Kernell's attorney, Wade Davies, contends the government has wrongly combined two similar misdemeanours to form a felony charge, and says because of that, the case should be thrown out.

While computer "hacking" is slang without legal definition, Davies also objects to prosecutors using it to describe his client because of the "negative connotations."

He says hacking implies "the use of sophisticated means of specialised computer skills." What his client did was more like "guessing three security questions based on readily available information from public sources."

Kernell turned himself in the same day his indictment was unsealed in October. He pleaded not guilty and has been released on several conditions, including staying away from his computer except for school work.

The indictment said Kernell tapped into the Alaska governor's widely publicised Yahoo! email account by correctly answering a series of personal security questions. He allegedly reset the password to "popcorn" and was able to read the contents, make screenshots and post his exploits on the web using the nickname "rubico."

The indictment said at least one other person followed a similar path into Palin's account, but no other arrests have been made.