Ex-Fugees star accuses his lawyer of going full robot in corruption trial

An AI may be able to botch a closing argument, but can it sing Killing Me Softly?

Updated Former Fugee, Prakazrel "Pras" Michel, who was convicted of criminal conspiracy charges over attempts to influence the administrations of two US presidents, wants a new trial because he believes his lawyer used AI to craft closing arguments, among other things.

Michel filed a heavily redacted motion [PDF] yesterday, asking the Washington DC federal judge who presided over his case for a new trial. Michel claims a host of things turned the trial against him, but the most interesting allegation was that his former defense attorney used an "experimental artificial intelligence program" to draft closing arguments.

Michel is one-third of the 90s superstar hip hop crew the Fugees, winning two Grammy Awards alongside Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean for their best-selling 1996 album, The Score. The trio disbanded not long after, but still occasionally perform together, last giving a show in June, shortly after Michel's conviction.

Michel hasn't been sentenced yet, but it's believed the charges could put him away for up to 20 years. Prosecutors accuse him of plotting with Malaysian financier Jho Low to attempt to influence the administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The original indictment accuses the rapper of conspiring with Low and others in 2017 to retain Elliott Broidy, a former deputy Finance Chair for the Republican National Party, to engage in "back-channel, unregistered" lobbying of Trump officials on two issues. Trump pardoned Broidy – convicted of illegally lobbying his administration to ditch its probe into the 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia – when he left office in 2021.

Michel was also convicted of conspiring with Low to make "conduit contributions" to the 2012 re-election campaign of President Obama and then lying to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) about it. There is no implication that Obama knew about the scheme.

Additionally, Michel was convicted of charges relating to "alleged foreign lobbying schemes on behalf of a foreign principal (Low) and a foreign government (China)."

Low – arguably the most wanted "white-collar criminal" on the planet – is still on the run, though he is also being prosecuted in abstentia for orchestrating a series of foreign lobbying campaigns aimed at influencing the US government. He is also accused by Malaysia of being the architect of the theft of more than $4.5 billion from the country's sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.

In the filing, Michel accuses his former defense attorney, David Kenner, of using "an experimental AI program to write his closing argument, which made frivolous arguments, conflated the schemes, and failed to highlight key weaknesses in the Government's case."

The motion cites a May 10 press release issued by a company called EyeLevel – which makes a litigation help tool called Lit Assist – after the trial concluded, which states: "EyeLevel.AI's litigation assistance technology made history last week, becoming the first use of generative AI in a federal trial. The case involved Pras Michel..."

The press release goes on to quote Kenner as saying: "This is an absolute game changer for complex litigation. The system turned hours or days of legal work into seconds. This is a look into the future of how cases will be conducted."

The motion goes on to accuse Kenner and his co-counsel of having "an undisclosed financial stake in the AI program," claiming "they experimented with it during Michel's trial so they could issue a press release afterward promoting the program – a clear conflict of interest."

Michel's motion this week also claimed Kenner's defense work was "deficient," describing as an example that for one of the charges, the attorney provided a "sole, frivolous defense – that Michel had made the contributions in order to help Low get a photograph with President Obama, and not because he wanted to influence policy." The filing went on to state that the indictment hadn't accused Michel of attempting to influence policy in the Obama administration (that was the Trump charge, the argument goes), but rather of a conduit scheme, alleging that "Kenner appears to have confused the conduit scheme with the lobbying scheme, which did allege Low's policy aims."

Referring to the 2021 indictment, the motion claims "when Kenner attempted to argue why the jury should acquit on the §951 charge and conspiracy, he failed to make the strongest and most obvious argument: that there was no evidence that Michel or anyone else acted at the 'direction or control' of the Chinese government."

The §951 charge refers to Michel's conviction for conspiring with Broidy to lobby Trump, on behalf of China, in a bid to extradite Chinese dissident Guo Wengui. Broidy admitted to illegally lobbying the Trump administration, and testified he'd made "failed attempts" to stop a federal investigation into Low Jho and to push the US into extraditing Guo, described by the WSJ as a Chinese dissident whom "Beijing had branded a criminal."

The motion adds:

At bottom, the AI program failed Kenner, and Kenner failed Michel. The closing argument was deficient, unhelpful, and a missed opportunity that prejudiced the defense.

Michel also filed a motion [PDF] to acquit him on the bulk of the charges on the same day, claiming "the evidence at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain his convictions on those counts."

We have asked Kenner for comment. ®

Updated to add on October 26:

According to updates on the federal court system, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has concluded that an evidentiary hearing is "warranted." The court set an evidentiary hearing for December 28, 2023 at 0900 ET.

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