Rapper McKinley Phipps Jr., who has been imprisoned for 21 years and one day for a crime he claims he did not commit, may soon be granted clemency following a Louisiana parole board’s unanimous vote that he be released.
Phipps, known to hip-hop fans as “Mac,” was convicted in 2001 of manslaughter in the shooting of 19-year-old concertgoer Barron “Bookie” Victor Jr. at a nightclub in St. Tammany Parish. Phipps’ legal team has battled to commute his 30-year sentence after a series of investigative reports from former HuffPost reporter David Lohr exposed flaws in his conviction.
The Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole recommended Monday that Phipps be made eligible immediately for parole. It now goes to the desk of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for sign-off. If approved, Phipps will need to appear before the parole board one more time.
“Today’s been a good day. It’s kind of the beginning of the road to freedom, but there’s still some more bases to go.” McKinley’s wife, Angelique Phipps, told HuffPost. “It’s a start. One step closer.”
“Not only is this amazing for us, but I believe that it also provides hope for those in comparable situations. Our goal is in sight, and we will get to the finish line,” she said.
Though there’s no timeline for the governor’s decision, Phipps’s family is optimistic that it will be prompt while concerns remain high about the spread of COVID-19 in prison facilities.
“This governor is incredibly fair. He does seem to do what’s right when it comes to reforming the criminal justice system here,” Angelique Phipps said.
Angelique was present at Monday’s hearing ― held remotely through Zoom due to the pandemic ― as were her husband’s parents, Sheila and McKinley Phipps. Phipps Sr. grew visibly emotional after the board made its decision.
At the time of the Feb. 21, 2000, shooting, Phipps was a 22-year-old rising star with No Limit Records. He was at Club Mercedes in Slidell to perform when Victor was shot and killed. Phipps has been behind bars ever since.
“During his stay at Elayn Hunt Correctional, McKinley has served as a certified mentor for a number of groups, was appointed and maintained trustee status, volunteered with the mental health and hospice units, served as the president of the Music Association, completed several self-improvement courses, and began his college studies,” Angelique said in a statement read at Monday’s hearing.
A team of attorneys at Spell & Spell took on Phipps’s case in 2015 after Lohr’s HuffPost investigations found a series of problems with his conviction. The prosecution did not use forensic evidence and failed to acknowledge the confession of another man. Multiple witnesses told HuffPost that they were pressured into lying by authorities. Phipps’s rap lyrics were used against him at trial to portray him as someone capable of committing the crime.
Buddy Spell and his partners Annie Spell and Tara Zeller filed an application for clemency in 2016 that was ultimately rejected. Two years ago, Phipps filed a petition himself, Angelique said.
Following a lengthy process, during which she “called the parole board office every week,” Angelique was told in December that her husband would have his hearing in February.
Spell told HuffPost it was a deeply emotional day.
“It’s huge. It’s wonderful,” he said. “I’ve been screaming and crying.”
Phipps has been on work release at a facility in Raceland in Lafourche Parish since earlier this month. Reliving the night of the shooting to the parole board Monday, Phipps recounted seeing a commotion on the dance floor and hearing a shot fired. He ran to the front door to look for his mother, and they left together, he said, adding that he later learned a man had been killed.
Russell Baker, a close childhood friend of Phipps who was with him that night, told HuffPost it’s been a long and painful struggle in the years since, and he won’t feel relief until he can finally see his friend back with his family.
“It’s basically 21 years to the date that it happened. When it first initially happened, my faith was strong and I basically knew that no innocent man would be sent to jail for life. I knew for a fact that he was innocent,” Baker said. “My faith in the justice system has taken a hit.”
He said he will forever be sympathetic to the victim’s family, but it doesn’t change what happened to his friend.
Erik Nielson, a University of Richmond professor and co-author of “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America,” has been a part of the team fighting for Phipps’s freedom. Nielson has conducted extensive research that has been critical of the use of lyrics to seek criminal convictions against Black artists.
“Everybody is very optimistic that this is by far the key hurdle,” he told HuffPost of Monday’s verdict. “His whole family has been tireless. His parents have been so beaten down by the process.”
But there’s still some uncertainty hanging, he said. “It’s not over until he’s out.”