Man Freed After Spending 21 Years In Prison For Murder Despite Another Man’s Confession
McKinley ‘Mac’ Phipps said he had stopped believing in people and the system: ‘Everything was just dark.’
A former rapper who spent over two decades behind bars in Louisiana on a manslaughter conviction recently won his freedom after receiving clemency.
In February 2000, Baton Rouge-based McKinley “Mac” Phipps, then 22, was performing at Club Mercedes in Slidell, a city across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. It was his last performance before he was set to begin a six-month tour.
“That's one of the places where I would have never went had we not had that show,” Phipps’ brother, Chad Phipps, said, according to NPR. “When you're Brown, you're not welcome. It's sort of a racist area — get stopped a lot and, uh, harassed a lot in that area.”
A fight broke out at the club that night.
“My brother, at some point, saw me in the middle of this ruckus that looked like it was about to happen,” Chad recalled. “So he started walking up and I can see him walking up over my shoulder. Now, I'm still holding off two guys from fighting each other as my brother's walking up over my shoulder to see what was going on, and the next thing you know, it was like, a POW!”
Barron Victor Jr., 19, was fatally shot in the heart.
In the confusion, Chad said, he saw his brother, who allegedly had armed himself for protection that evening with a legally registered gun, ducking, with a firearm pointed at the ceiling. It’s illegal in Louisiana to carry a concealed weapon in a club, according to NPR.
The gun Phipps said he had in the club at the time of the incident was found not to have fired the shot that killed Victor.
Phipps and his family returned to Baton Rouge that night. When the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office contacted Phipps, he assumed he would go in for questioning, and his name would be cleared. “They're going to run checks on my hands and then they're going to let me go,” he later told a documentary filmmaker of his thoughts at the time.
Phipps, instead, was arrested. He adamantly denied he had anything to do with the shooting.
Days later, according to NPR, Thomas Williams came to the sheriff’s office with his pastor. Williams told deputies in a videotaped confession that he was working security at the club the night of the incident and in a panic he had pulled a gun and shot a man who came after him with a beer bottle.
Despite the confession, Williams was never charged.
In September 2001, Phipps’ trial began in a St. Tammany Parish courtroom. During opening statements, the prosecutor read lyrics — including “Pull the trigger, put a bullet in your head” — from Phipps’ music to the all-white jury and referred to him by his nickname, “Camouflage Assassin.”
"I have lived my whole life trying to ... stay out of jail so I can pursue my dreams," Phipps later said, according to NPR. “And here it is — my dream was being used against me in court.”
"I used to rap about all types of stuff growing up, you know, conscious stuff. That's what I was known for before I signed with No Limit ... But here I started making the type of music that [was] selling and all of a sudden, this music, it was being used against me in court...,” he noted.
The prosecutor also dismissed Williams’ on-record confession as unreliable since the man had a long criminal history.
Jurors, except for two who voted not guilty — until 2018, Louisiana law did not require unanimity for conviction — found Phipps responsible for manslaughter and the aspiring rapper was sentenced to 30 years in prison. His release date was set for 2030.
“I went back to the jail when they brought me back and I was angry,” Phipps said of the verdict. “I was angry with God more than anything. And I think that night I didn't believe in anything. I didn't believe in people no more. I didn't believe in the system any more. I didn't believe in nothing. Everything was just dark.”
For years, the former No Limit Records artist’s fans and loved ones insisted he was wrongly convicted.
In 2015, five witnesses alleged to the Huffington Post that authorities coerced their statements fingering Phipps as the shooter. The following year, Phipps’ appeal for clemency was denied. Last April, however, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards granted a second appeal, and a three-member parole panel unanimously voted in favor of Phipps’ release from prison.
“I want to say thank you for this opportunity,” Phipps, now 43, told the parole board in June, according to NOLA.com. “I definitely want to say I’m sorry to the family of the victim and to just anyone who was affected by this.”
Phipps’ release came with several parole conditions, including observing a daily curfew and performing community service with at-risk youth.
“We feel blessed to have McKinley home after such a long fight for his freedom,” Phipps’ wife, Angelique, said in a statement. “We look forward to this new chapter of life.”
Phipps reportedly is planning to rebuild his life by managing his mother Sheila’s art studio and gallery as well as working with a construction company.