In 2000, someone shot a young man in a Slidell club. Investigators quickly zeroed in on McKinley Phipps Jr., a rising star in New Orleans’ rap scene. He was convicted of manslaughter. But witnesses have raised questions about the key eyewitness, and one woman says she was coerced into pointing the finger at Phipps.
A shot in the dark can launch a music career. In the case of an up-and-coming rapper, it ended one. In February 2000, McKinley Phipps Jr., a rising star in New Orleans’ rap scene, attended an open-mic night at Club Mercedes in Slidell, La. A fight broke out. Someone shot and killed 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. Phipps, there to sign autographs and meet fans, didn’t have a criminal record. But he was learning to play the part as a gangsta rapper nicknamed “Mac the Camouflage Assassin,” signed to Master P’s No Limit Records.
Deputies quickly zeroed in on Phipps after witnesses said they saw him with a gun. He was arrested hours after the shooting. The next year, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in prison, abruptly ending his career at 24. He has maintained his innocence throughout. A three-month investigation by The Medill Justice Project, in partnership with The Lens and Louisiana State University, has revealed some evidence that supports Phipps’ claim:
- Two people at the club that night later questioned whether the key eyewitness who testified against Phipps saw the shooting.
- The only other eyewitness to testify against Phipps backed off her claim of seeing him fire his gun. She said she had gone back to the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office to recant her statement, but the prosecutor said during the trial he had no knowledge of her doing so. Last year, she signed an affidavit saying she had been coerced into accusing Phipps.
- Other witnesses gave conflicting accounts to authorities. Some said Phipps didn’t fire a shot.
- Someone else confessed to the shooting, but investigators didn’t believe him.
Russell Baker said he was standing next to Phipps when the shots were fired. “I know he didn’t do it,” Baker told The Medill Justice Project earlier this year, sitting at a table in a coffee shop. “As close as I am to this table is where I was with him that night.” Baker wasn’t called to testify at Phipps’ trial. New Orleans private investigator Miguel Nunez has been looking into the case at no cost because he believes Phipps is innocent. Phipps’ case, he said, is a “classic example of … things are not what they always appear.”
Phipps, whose parents organized the open-mic event that Sunday through their production company, went to see the performers from Slidell and New Orleans and to meet fans. His father collected money at the door. Patrons were searched for weapons as they entered, although performers and some of their friends came in the back.
The bar was crowded, smoky and dark, witnesses said. After midnight, a large fight broke out near the stage. Witnesses told investigators they couldn’t make out who exactly was involved.
Accounts differ on whether Phipps was involved in the fight. One or two shots rang out — accounts vary — and people scattered. Victor ran to the front of the club and collapsed near the door.
“From the time the shots went off, everybody started screaming, ‘Mac shot him, Mac shot him,’” Yulon James testified at the trial, referring to Phipps.
Phipps was arrested at his home in Baton Rouge at about 4 a.m., just hours after the shooting.
Later that day, a woman who was at the club that night came forward to say that deputies had arrested the wrong person. She and two friends, none of whom knew Phipps personally, said they were standing near the fight. They told authorities they saw a man matching Phipps’ description wave a gun and ask who was shooting as he ran out of the club.
One of them, James Barney, said he saw Phipps pull the gun out as people ran from the shooting.