Law School Case Brief
United States v. Kernell - 667 F.3d 746 (6th Cir. 2012)
For sufficiency of the evidence challenges, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very heavy burden for the convicted defendant to meet.
During the 2008 Presidential election, defendant David Kernell was a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In Sept. 2008, it was reported in the New York Times that Sarah Palin, the then-governor of Alaska and Republican candidate for Vice President, used the email address "email@example.com" for personal and official business. In the early morning of Sept. 16, 2008, Kernell gained access to the Palin email account. Kernell was convicted in federal district court of obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1519 for deleting information from his computer that related to his effort to gain access to the email account. Section 1519 prohibited the knowing destruction or alteration of any record "with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or in relation to or in contemplation of any such matter or case. Kernell appealed his conviction, arguing that § 1519 was unconstitutionally vague and that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction.
Was the conviction proper?
The appellate court held that § 1519 clearly set out the elements for conviction and affirmed Kernell's conviction and sentence. The government had to show: (1) that he knowingly deleted or altered the information on his computer; (2) with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence an investigation that; (3) he contemplated at the time of the deletion or alteration. The government put forward sufficient evidence on each point. Even with proper skepticism directed toward claims made on the internet, a self-incriminating statement such as Kernell's provided sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that he acted with obstructive intent. His post made clear that he believed a federal investigation was at least a possible outcome of his actions. That was sufficient to sustain the government's burden.
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