Imprisoned New Orleans Rapper Mac Is Looking for Redemption
"I feel like I was born in prison."
McKinley Phipps, Jr. isn't complaining. The 37-year-old—better known as Mac, the New Orleans rapper who once played an integral role in Master P's No Limit Records empire—is merely stating a matter of fact. Mac has been locked up since 2001, when was convicted of manslaughter stemming from the shooting death of a young man in February 2000 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. But now, in light of a new investigation led by The Medill Justice Project that has cast serious doubt as to the veracity of key witness testimony, there's hope that Mac may be released, ending years of false imprisonment. Justice, he believes, might finally be served.
Mac is currently housed at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, La., a prison most notable for its mass cemetery bearing the graves of inmates whose remains are unclaimed by family or friends. Phone interviews with inmates at Hunt are difficult; they have to be conducted in 13-minute segments before a recorded voice cuts off each call. (At one point, XXL's communication with Mac is terminated after prison officials suspect a third party may have been patched into the conversation.) But Mac's disposition is sunny, almost impossibly so. "I just hope that this [renewed investigation] leads to the eventual outcome, which is having the truth come out," he says in a January phone call. "That's what I've been advocating since I came here: the truth. Hopefully all of this will shed some light on some things that happened."
The indisputable facts of the case are as follows: In February of 2000, a 19-year-old man named Barron Victor, Jr. was shot to death inside Club Mercedes in Slidell, La. Mac was there that night to help promote an open mic event. With him was his mother, Sheila Phipps, his father, McKinley Phipps, Sr. and a handful of friends and hangers-on. The rapper was arrested that night and charged with second-degree murder, defined in Louisiana in part as a killing that occurs when "the offender has a specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm."
That night after the shooting, Mac and his entourage left Club Mercedes in several different vehicles. Shortly thereafter, police officers followed two members of Mac's security detail—who had been out looking for food—to the Phipps residence. The officers explained that there had been a shooting, that the victim had died and that Mac was under arrest; he remained in custody while the police's investigation proceeded. He was never released.
In his original statement to detectives, Mac initially had another theory as to the shooter's motives. According to the statement, the MC was observing the club, unsure as to whether he would perform due to a somewhat lackluster turnout. When he emerged from the bathroom, he witnessed a commotion near the front of the stage, then heard a shot ring out. "[W]hen the shot fired, I ducked, but all I seen is people running, running, running," he says. "My next move is, 'Like, okay, where in the hell is my mother?' You know, my mother is collecting [Mac's appearance fee] at the door. I'm thinking maybe there's some distraction, really, to try to get the money from my mom." From there, the interrogation spins in circles, the detective shutting down Mac's explanations by returning to the fact that two witnesses claimed they saw him with a gun.
The finer points of the investigation read like plot points in a Shakespearean comedy of errors. To start, a man named Thomas Williams confessed to the crime less than two weeks after it occurred. Williams, who was working security for Mac on the night of the shooting, turned himself in to the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office in the presence of his minister. Williams claimed that Victor had charged at him with a broken beer bottle and that he had acted in self-defense. (Williams' confession was dismissed at trial, as the St. Tammany Sheriff claimed it did not align with the physical evidence.)
The prosecution's chief eyewitness was the cousin of the deceased, a man named Nathaniel Tillison. Tillison claims he saw Mac fire shots into Victor at point-blank range; other witnesses in the club not only contradicted Tillison's account, but have also placed him in locations from which he would not have been able to see the shooting. Tillison said on the witness stand that Mac had hit a man in the head during a scuffle; in his initial statement to police, Tillison identified the aggressor as one of Mac's associates. He also claimed to a St. Tammany deputy to have seen another man with a gun, saying, "If Mac didn't do the shooting, you know who did."
The only other eyewitness to testify, a woman named Yulon James, admitted that she had not seen the actual shooting. In a 2013 affidavit, James said that St. Tammany law enforcement officials coerced her into pegging Mac as the shooter. Mac and his mother each feel that No Limit artists were being targeted by Louisiana law enforcement during the late 1990s; similarly, they share a belief that Mac was named as the shooter during the ensuing melee because he was the one identifiable face in a sea of chaos.
In light of weak testimony and a total lack of a forensic case, the prosecution honed in on Mac's claim to fame: his music. The Assistant District Attorney at the time not only read some of the lyrics from Mac's album Shell Shocked's "Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill," but told the jury that the rapper "chose to live those words." Mac's mother, on the other hand, has another explanation. "My husband was in the military, and in the Vietnam War," Mrs. Phipps says in a conversation with XXL. "So a lot of the things my son was rapping about were my husband's stories he used to tell."
Though there were firearms at the Phipps' residence—and on Mac's person—the night of his arrest, none of the ammunition matched that which had killed Victor. In fact, the murder weapon was never recovered. No physical evidence has ever connected Mac to the shooting. During deliberations, the jury asked the judge for clarification between second-degree murder and manslaughter. After a 7-hour wait, Mac was convicted of manslaughter in a 10-2 decision and sentenced to 30 years in prison.