COVINGTON, La. -- For convicted rapper McKinley "Mac" Phipps Jr., the quickest route out of prison requires the one thing he won't do -- admit his guilt.
Phipps was a rising star in the Louisiana hip-hop scene signed to Master P's No Limit Records in 2000, when a concertgoer was shot in the darkness of a Slidel, Lousiana, club where Phipps had gone to perform and sign autographs. Prosecutors accused him of pulling the trigger, and an all-white jury convicted him of manslaughter.
But Phipps, now in the 16th year of a 30-year sentence, has always maintained his innocence.
If he were to accept responsibility for the crime, he might be in line for parole -- a path that would allow him to spend time with his 15-year-old son, who was born while he was behind bars. It would also reunite him with his parents, who have been singular in their support.
But Phipps said he won't admit taking a man's life when he did no such thing.
"I didn't do this crime," Phipps told The Huffington Post. "My conviction was an injustice -- it was wrong. The only thing that's kept me going all these years is always believing that someday my innocence is going to prevail."
Phipps' friends, family and supporters have long been wringing their hands over the 2001 conviction, complaining that prosecutors bullied witnesses, withheld evidence, and misquoted his lyrics to effectively use his art against him.
But what angers some of them the most is that another man stepped forward just days after the shooting to admit that he was responsible for the death of 22-year-old Barron Victor Jr.
HuffPost Crime has obtained a police interview with Thomas Williams, who then worked as Phipps' security guard. He told police days after the killing that he fired the fatal shot that took Victor's life.
The video, never before publicly released, was part of the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office's investigation into the Feb. 21, 2000, shooting at the now-defunct Club Mercedes.
Williams, who was 36 at the time, said in the statement that a guy was "charging me with a beer bottle." He said he panicked, pulled his gun and fired.
"I didn't know what else to do," Williams told a sheriff's detective. "I was protecting myself … He was coming towards me to hurt me."
Thomas disappeared for a week after the shooting and came forward with his minister before sitting down for the confession.
At trial, prosecutors discounted Thomas' testimony, portraying him as a loyal worker in Phipps' entourage, eager to cover for his boss. Williams was also engaged to Phipps' aunt and had two children with her.
But Phipps' attorney, Buddy Spell, said he thinks that argument is far-fetched.
"The government's argument that Mac Phipps inspired such loyalty amongst his entourage that this man would confess to a crime he did not commit, one that could buy him a life hitch at Angola, simply to curry favor with Mac is patently ridiculous," Spell told HuffPost. "The mere suggestion of such fantasy underscores the general unreliability of a conviction based upon a disingenuous prosecution. The government targeted Mac and nothing -- neither truth nor justice -- was going to interfere with the task at hand."
Phipps, 22 at the time of the shooting, had been signed to the same label as Snoop Dogg and Mystikal and he had recorded with them. What his career might have looked like, had he been able to dodge this charge, is impossible to calculate.
"Mac was a prolific rapper," music producer Raymond "Mo B. Dick" Poole told HuffPost. "Mac brought respect for the lyrical craft to the label. He brought depth and lyrical creativity. The rap industry would be a whole different industry if Mac had not been locked up. He already had a great impact, but he was just getting started. He had put his keys in the ignition and had not even hit the accelerator at that time. He was just getting started."
Williams pleaded guilty to obstructing justice related to the case and received a two-year suspended sentence. He didn't testify in Phipps' trial. He has declined to answer HuffPost's questions.
Whether Williams stands by his 2000 statement that he was the killer isn't clear. But authorities' handling of his confession casts further doubt on the prosecution's case against Phipps. Prosecution witnesses, including a key nightclub eyewitness, have told HuffPost that police and prosecutors either bullied them into giving false testimony or ignored their statements.
Phipps' new legal team, Covington-based Spell & Spell, said everything uncovered in the past year boosts the rapper's longtime claims he is innocent and was a victim of runaway prosecution. The lawyers said they are pursuing clemency for Phipps and are preparing to file legal motions for post-conviction relief aimed at winning Phipps a new trial.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery, who was elected in 2014 on a platform of reform, told HuffPost in an email last month that he had reviewed Phipps’ case and that there was “nothing new for me to look into.”
The 52-minute video of Williams' confession shows him and his minister, the Rev. Jerry Price, seated inside an interrogation room at the sheriff's office.
"He told me that he was the one that did the shooting and needed to go and turn himself in," Price told HuffPost, explaining why he accompanied Williams.
Detective Bobby Juge questioned Williams for about 30 minutes before he began a formal statement.
Williams told the detective he panicked when he saw the man charging him with a bottle and opened fire. He said the victim was "between six to 10 feet" away.
Williams described the gun as a revolver he had bought off the street a month or two earlier. He was unable to recall the gun's make, color or handle.
"I don't really carry guns, because I don't really need it," he said. "I'm not that type of person."
Williams was permitted to leave the sheriff's office after the statement.
"That was it," Price recalled. "They just said they would get back to him."
"When I was informed Tom said [he did it], I thought I was gone," said Phipps. "I was like, 'Wow, I’m going home,' but that didn't happen."
Williams' statement was contradicted by the coroner's report, which indicated Victor was shot at close range.
According to court records, Williams was later charged with obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact to second-degree murder.
In 2004 -- three years after Phipps' trial -- Williams pleaded guilty to the obstruction charge in a deal with prosecutors, who dropped the murder accessory charge.
Louisiana private investigator Miguel Nunez, who has worked on the Phipps' case without charge, said he believes Williams mostly told the truth in the video statement.
"Just because Tom said he was 10 feet away does not mean he actually was, and just because he said he can't remember what the gun looked like does not mean he actually couldn't," Nunez said. "It might very well be that Tom pressed the gun right up against Barron Victor, but he might not want to tell it like that because then it removes his claims of self-defense."
Price said he, too, believes Williams was truthful in confessing he was the shooter.
"I think he was honest so far as doing the shooting, but other parts I can't say I felt he was being honest," Price said.
Dwight Guyot, whose wife owned Club Mercedes, said Williams' story matches what he remembers seeing inside the club.
"The guy picked a bottle up, he broke the bottle and the security guard -- this little stout dude -- pulled out a gun and shot the dude," Guyot told HuffPost.
Phipps' aunt, Andrea Warren, told police she left the club with Williams, who was then engaged to her sister.
"When we got in the car, Thomas said, 'He shouldn't of came on me,'" Warren said. She said she and another man in the car "kind of just looked at each other when he said that."
Warren said she and the two men drove to New Orleans, where she said she saw Williams retrieve a gun from under the passenger's seat.
"I'm not familiar with guns," Warren said. "The only thing I remember is it looked like an old type of gun. It was black -- the revolver type -- with a round handle. He took the gun out and put it in his waist."
Warren said investigators never asked her to make a formal statement.
"You could tell their mind was already made up and they didn't believe what I was saying," she said.
Detective Juge testified during Phipps' trial that investigators never sought warrants to search Williams' home for the murder weapon. He also revealed that Williams had been arrested on a federal firearms violation in August 2000, roughly six months after the shooting.
"When it was discovered that Mr. Williams was wanted and charged by the United States of America with firearms violations, did someone then obtain a search warrant to look for the weapon or evidence in connection with this case?" Phipps' attorney, Keven Boshea, asked the detective during the trial.
"No sir," Juge replied.
Williams' former probation officer, Kenney Dixon, testified no one from the sheriff's office ever contacted him to determine what type of gun was involved in the federal firearms case.
St. Tammany Sheriff's Office records show no ballistics tests were conducted on Williams' handgun. Tests on Phipps' pistol showed it wasn't the murder weapon.
"I do believe that Tom did indeed shoot Barron," Phipps said. "I've never known him to be a malicious person, so his claim of self-defense could have been genuine, because I can't see another reason why he would confess.
"I certainly didn't offer him anything. And while by the prosecution's account that would be the ultimate display of loyalty, in real life it just don't happen like that. I think he made a terrible decision based on his fear."