The lead defense lawyer for convicted Fugees hip hop star Prakazrel “Pras” Michel improperly relied on an experimental generative AI program to draft his closing argument in Michel’s high-profile criminal trial last spring, according to a newly-filed brief demanding a retrial for Michel.
Michel’s new counsel from ArentFox Schiff said that the AI-generated closing argument by Michel’s previous lawyer, David Kenner, was a resounding flop: “Kenner’s closing argument made frivolous arguments, misapprehended the required elements, conflated the schemes and ignored critical weaknesses in the government’s case,” the brief said.
By using an experimental AI program to generate his closing argument, the brief said, Kenner botched “the single most important portion” of Michel’s jury trial.
Kenner did not immediately respond to two email queries on the new brief. His co-counsel Alon Israely did not immediately respond to a query sent via LinkedIn.
Michel was convicted in April on federal charges of conspiring with fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low in three alleged lobbying schemes to influence two different U.S. presidential administrations.
His new lawyers contend Kenner’s defense of Michel was woefully inadequate, in part because he relied on the AI program EyeLevel.AI to craft his final argument in the complex, politically charged case, which featured testimony from Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“The AI program failed Kenner, and Kenner failed Michel,” the brief said. “The closing argument was deficient, unhelpful and a missed opportunity that prejudiced the defense.”
What’s even more egregious, according to the ArentFox brief, is that Kenner and Israely “appear to have had” an undisclosed financial interest in a company called CaseFile Connect, which acted as a “technology partner” to EyeLevel.AI.
The brief asserts that Kenner and Israely regarded Michel’s trial as an opportunity to tout CaseFile Connect, advancing their own financial interests at Michel’s expense.
CaseFile Connect did not immediately respond to queries sent through its website.
In a declaration accompanying the brief, ArentFox partner Peter Zeidenberg, a former Justice Department political corruption prosecutor, said his team first learned that Kenner had used an AI program to write his closing argument from Michel’s former publicist, who told ArentFox that Kenner said as much at the end of Michel’s trial.
ArentFox subsequently found a little-noticed May 10 press release issued by EyeLevel.AI after Michel’s trial, hailing “the first use of generative AI in a federal trial.”
The press release included a quote from Kenner, who said that the AI program “turned hours or days of legal work into seconds,” and called his use of the program “a look into the future of how cases will be conducted.”
Zeidenberg’s declaration also cited a LinkedIn post by an EyeLevel.AI executive who confirmed the program’s use at Michel’s trial. “AI startup I’ve been working on is now the first use of AI in a federal criminal trial,” the executive wrote in the post. “Defense lawyers for Fugees star Pras Michel used our platform to rapidly research and help draft closing arguments.”
EyeLevel.AI said in an emailed statement that Kenner and Israely do not have a financial stake in its program. “EyeLevel’s AI for legal is a powerful tool for human lawyers to make human decisions, but do so faster and with far greater information at their fingertips,” the company said in response to ArentFox’s criticism of its closing argument. “EyeLevel is able to ingest and understand complex legal transcripts based solely on the facts of the case as presented in court.”
ArentFox said it had determined that CaseFile Connect and Kenner’s law firm both listed the same office suite in Encino, California, as their primary address. CaseFile Connect’s alternative address, according to Zeidenberg’s declaration, was a New York City office associated with Kenner co-counsel Israely.
CaseFile’s website did not disclose its owners, ArentFox said, but the overlap in addresses, Zeidenberg said in his declaration, “appears to confirm that Mr. Kenner and Mr. Israely had a financial interest in the AI program Mr. Kenner used to write the closing argument and then boasted about after trial.”
The ArentFox lawyer said in the filing that his team had contacted Kenner and Israely through their counsel but they declined to speak with Michel’s new lawyers about the trial.
The motion seeking a retrial for Michel also argued that the proceeding was tainted because the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Washington, D.C., allowed jurors to hear that she and another federal judge had already concluded, in the context of the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege, that Michel conspired with an alleged co-conspirator to commit some of the crimes the government charged.
Those references, along with allegedly improper testimony about Michel’s guilt from the lead case agent on his case, turned the jury into “a rubber stamp,” the brief argued.
The brief listed a litany of purported failures by Kenner, in addition to the alleged AI closing argument fiasco. Among the most serious is ArentFox’s accusation that Kenner, who is not an expert in complex white-collar cases or lobbying regulations, outsourced trial preparation to inexperienced contract attorneys at an e-discovery company co-founded by Israely, an old friend.
That inadequate preparation was fatal to Kenner’s attempts to cross-examine government witnesses, the brief said.