ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. -- Fourteen years after rapper McKinley "Mac" Phipps was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of a teenage fan at a show, five prosecution witnesses have told The Huffington Post that police and prosecutors bullied them into fingering the once-promising hip-hop artist as the gunman.
The star witness, Yulon James, who testified she saw Phipps fire the fatal shot, said she was repeatedly threatened by the parish district attorney's office, headed by DA Walter Reed, who left office in January amid a reported federal grand jury investigation into campaign funds and side businesses.
"They stalked my house, they stalked my job and they stalked my family," said James, who now acknowledges she "didn't see anything" and testified falsely against Phipps. "The DA came over to my parents' house and told me I would have my baby in prison if I didn't testify."
Reed's office has not responded to calls and emails from The Huffington Post, nor has his attorney, Richard T. Simmons. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office declined to comment.
James said she came forward with the story because Reed is no longer in power. Reed's 30-year run as DA ended this year after he decided not to seek a seventh term amid the ongoing investigation. There has been no indication that the probe involves cases his office prosecuted.
In a four-month review of Phipps' conviction, The Huffington Post identified four other witnesses -- former nightclub owner Dwight Guyot, the victim's cousin Jerry Price, Phipps' cousin Larnell Warren and club-goer Jamie Wilson -- who said they were threatened, jailed or flat-out ignored by authorities. The claims, along with James' recantation, appear to cast doubt on Phipps' conviction.
'Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill'
On Feb. 21, 2000, Phipps was performing at Club Mercedes in Slidell, Louisiana. A fight broke out and at least one shot was fired. A fan, Barron Victor Jr., 19, fell dead.
James, then a 24-year-old nursing student, had gone to the club that evening with friends.
Phipps, 22, was a rising star in the New Orleans area. Master P had signed him to No Limit Records, alongside Snoop Dogg and Mystikal. He was known as "Mac the Camouflage Assassin," and had recently released "World War III," featuring cuts such as "Assassin Nation," "Genocide" and "War Party." He had planned to leave No Limit to start his own label -- Camouflage Entertainment.
“He [was] definitely one of the smartest, most intelligent lyrical wizards over there" at No Limit, Michael Render, the rapper better known as Killer Mike, told HuffPost.
Investigators said witnesses told them they saw Phipps with a gun. He was arrested hours after the killing. The following year, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The murder weapon was never found and no forensic evidence tied Phipps to the crime. Still, the prosecutor portrayed Phipps as a gangsta rapper who was as brutal as some of the imagery in his lyrics, quoting generously from "Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill," a top cut from "Shell Shocked," his first No Limit album.
"This defendant who did this is the same defendant whose message is, 'Murder murder, kill, kill, you f--k with me you get a bullet in your brain," assistant district attorney Bruce Dearing told jurors in his closing argument. "You don't have to be a genius to figure out that one plus one equals two."
Jurors didn't know the prosecutor had selectively grabbed quotes from different songs, juxtaposing lyrics in a way Phipps never intended. Phipps maintains he was rapping about his Vietnam veteran father in "Shell Shocked" with the line: "Big Mac, that's my daddy, rotten dirty straight up soldier … Ya f--k with me, he'll give you a bullet in yo brain."
Phipps' song never said, as the prosecutor told the jury, "you f--k with me you get a bullet in your brain." And the line "Murder, murder, kill, kill," is from a different song.
Dearing declined to comment on the case.
THE CLUB SHOOTING: (Story Continues Below)
Club Mercedes Shooting
Using hip-hop lyrics against rappers in court is increasingly common, according to Erik Nielson, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, who has served as an expert witness in these kinds of trials. A number of high-profile performers -- including Snoop Dogg, Beanie Sigel and Lil Boosie's collaborator, B.G. -- have had their music used against them in criminal proceedings.
But Phipps' case had a twist, Nielson said: It's the first time he's seen the prosecution "misquote and misrepresent lyrics" to such a degree.
"The changes to the wording altered the entire meaning of the lyrics," Nielson said. "They made Mac sound like a violent murderer, which just goes to show how powerful using rap lyrics as evidence can be."
Phipps was convicted by an all-white jury at a time when former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke was a towering figure in Louisiana politics.
"Most people who come to Louisiana come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest and get the impression Louisiana in general is a happy-go-lucky liberal area," hip-hop journalist Charlie Braxton told HuffPost. "But when you step outside of the city, what you're looking at is the land that time forgot."
'They Were Threatening Me With Life If I Didn't Testify'
Phipps has always maintained his innocence. Whether or not he pulled the trigger, James now blames Reed's office for tainting the jury's verdict.
"The DA didn't care at all that I didn't see anything," James said. "He filed an obstruction charge against me and held it over my head until Mac's trial was over."
Two jurors told HuffPost James' testimony was key in the verdict.
"She said she saw it [and we] really based everything on that," said Nancy Ross, a retired banker who has never spoken publicly about the case.
Ross said she recognized the prosecution's case --and James' eyewitness testimony-- as shaky. "As far away as she was in a crowded barroom, there's no way I could see her seeing anybody," said Ross, who said she ultimately abstained from voting to convict Phipps.
"How could she? That was my whole thing, but they were basing it all on the fact that she was pregnant and she could actually lose her baby from the stress of saying all that," Ross said. "That was to make [the rest of us] believe it even more."
Juror Robert Hammell said he also considered James' testimony crucial.
"I remember her well," he said. "She was under severe pressure … She was crying and everything else."
Phipps' former defense attorney, Jason Williams, said he believes inconsistencies in James' initial statements to police, as well as her testimony on the witness stand, suggest "serious coercion" and possibly direct threats.
Other witnesses said pressure to bend stories to authorities' liking was considerable.
Dwight Guyot, the former owner of the Mercedes nightclub, said he told investigators he saw another man shoot Victor. Guyot told HuffPost that police seemed upset that his account conflicted with the case they were building. He said they threatened him with life in prison when he refused to finger Phipps as the shooter.
"They was all over my ass," Guyot said. "Luckily, I was arrested just days after it on a federal charge, because the state was trying to charge me and they were threatening me with life if I didn't testify against Mac."
Guyot said he's only willing to talk about this now because Reed is no longer the district attorney.
Victor's cousin, Jerry Price, currently serving a 25-year sentence in Louisiana for drug charges, claimed police harassed him and pressed him to say he saw Phipps shoot Victor.
"I told the detectives I did not see who shot Barron … [and] the detectives told me that I was being charged with obstruction to first-degree murder and that the charge carried just as much time as the murder itself."
'It Wasn't The Jail ... It Was The People Who Put Me There'
Court documents show Price was charged with "obstruction of justice for first-degree murder" in March 2000.
Phipps' cousin, Larnell Warren, also was charged with obstruction of justice in reference to first-degree murder after he refused to finger Phipps as the shooter.
"They said all you got to do is say Mac did this and we'll let you go,'" Warren told HuffPost. "It was some crazy Mayberry shit. They locked me up for a year and a half. It was the first time I had ever been scared in my entire life and it wasn't of the jail ... It was the people who put me there."
The Mac Story (Story Continues Below)
McKinley "Mac" Phipps
'This Little Stout Dude Pulled Out A Gun And Shot The Dude'
As Reed's office was building a case against Phipps, another man confessed to firing a shot inside the nightclub. Thomas Williams, the former fiancé of Phipps' aunt who at the time worked as a member of Phipps' security team, told police the month after the killing that he had fired in self-defense.
Williams, 36, walked into the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office in March 2000 and said he pulled his gun after Victor charged at him with a broken beer bottle.
"I didn't know what else to do," Williams told police. "I was protecting myself."
But police found problems with Williams' story. He described the gun as a revolver he had bought off the street a month prior to the killing. He was unable to tell detectives its make or color, or describe the handle. He said he fired at Victor from several feet away. But the coroner's report said the gun was close, and possibly pressed against the victim, when the fatal shot was fired.
Authorities disregarded the confession and charged Williams with obstructing justice and accessory after the fact for second-degree murder.
Nunez, who has worked on Phipps' case pro bono for several years, said he believes Williams was, for the most part, truthful.
"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 told HuffPost. "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."
Guyot said he believes Williams shot Victor because the story matches what he saw 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.
THOMAS WILLIAMS CONFESSION: (Story Continues Below)
HuffPost sought out Williams in January. He declined to be interviewed.
Another person at the club that night, Jamie Wilson, told police 15 years ago she witnessed the shooting -- and Phipps was not the triggerman. She said she stands by that story today.
"They have the wrong person in jail -– that part I'm sure of," Wilson, now 34, told HuffPost. "He didn't shoot. I have no doubt. I see it in my head the same way today."
According to Wilson, police were not interested in what she had to say. She said she was standing next to Phipps at the time of the shooting, and he pulled her down when they heard gunshots.
"They treated me like they wished I wasn't there," Wilson said. "They made me feel like I was telling a story different from the one they wanted me to tell."
Still, Phipps' current attorney, Remy Starns, said his client has exhausted his appeals.
“He’s basically at the end of the road," Starns said. “There is a mechanism for a post-conviction application, which we may do, but they are very rarely granted. The other avenue would be if the district attorney would join us and say an injustice has been done here.”
The new district attorney, Warren Montgomery, could take a fresh look at the case. Whether he intends to is unclear. Montgomery hasn't responded to HuffPost's request for comment.
Phipps' earliest possible release date is 2024.
"Hope is really what has kept me going all these years," Phipps said during a recent interview inside the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. "Just always believing that someday my innocence will prevail."
McKinley Phipps Trial
Thanks to Erik Nielson, Angelique Christina, Phillip Allen, Charlie Braxton and Rapzines.com founder Brian Nagata for assistance in this article.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced the timing of George W. Bush's presidency.