Hip-hop artist McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr., imprisoned 15 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit, could be home for the holidays if his lawyers can negotiate a time-served deal with the newly elected local prosecutor.
Phipps, whose Louisiana manslaughter conviction was based on testimony from a supposed eyewitness who has since told The Huffington Post she lied at the trial, hopes to resolve his case in negotiations without further post-conviction hearings, his lawyers said. His defense attorneys plan to meet with the prosecutor in August to present new evidence casting doubt on the verdict and to ask for a reduced sentence for Phipps.
“Their position is that they’re willing to talk to us,” said defense attorney Buddy Spell. “We’re taking the position now that we would like to work out something that would avoid the necessity of re-litigating this case ― not only the shooting itself, but the handling of that trial. That might not be good for anybody and might not be necessary if we can come to an amicable agreement.”
Freedom would allow Phipps to get to know his son, who was born three months after Phipps’ arrest in the Feb. 21, 2000, shooting death of a fan at a concert in St. Tammany Parish.
“He’s been [in prison] my whole life, so it’s a good feeling he could be home soon,” Phipps’ son, 15-year-old McKinley “Taquan” Green, told The Huffington Post.
“It’s been a long fight and we’re already planning a big celebration for him, which shows how positive we are,” added Phipps’ mom, Sheila Phipps.
McKinley Phipps was sentenced to 30 years after a jury convicted him. The supposed eyewitness fingered him as the gunman.
But the prosecution’s star witness last year told HuffPost in an exclusive interview that she lied when she fingered Phipps as the killer because prosecutors threatened to charge her. Four other witnesses to the shooting told HuffPost investigators threatened, intimidated or ignored them.
“The door for a resolution is open because of The Huffington Post and ... because I don’t bring frivolous actions,” Spell said.
Green said the revelations brought relief.
“I was happy after all these years that people finally started to say my daddy is innocent and did not commit any crimes or hurt nobody,” he said. “I always knew he was wrongfully convicted for something he did not do.”
Phipps’ legal team, which includes Covington-based Spell, partner Tara Zeller and associate Jonathan Fleming, have spent the last several months gathering affidavits from the witnesses. They also said they have located a new eyewitness, who they have not publicly identified.
The attorneys said they hope to use the newly discovered evidence to negotiate a resolution of Phipps' case without a new trial.
"We do have the basis for obtaining a new trial and -- if we went to trial -- the likelihood of success is not insubstantial," Spell said. "With that in mind, we are trying to reach an amicable agreement with the prosecutor's office."
An agreement, Spell said, would free Phipps with time served, as opposed to a full exoneration, which is what Phipps and his family have long sought. However, an exoneration would entail petitioning courts for a new trial, which Spell said could take several years.
"Certainly, we'd like to prove his innocence in a court of law, but we're focusing on practicalities more than principles, and the quid pro quo for each side is if we can come to an agreement, Mac gets home more quickly," Spell said. "And when I say quick resolution, it would be lovely to have this done by Thanksgiving."
Phipps' fiancee, Angelique Christina, said she was thrilled with the possibility.
"Just the thought of how incredibly meaningful every minute detail will be and how very happy McKinley will be is beyond amazing," she said.
At the time of Phipps' arrest, he was a 22-year-old rising star in the New Orleans area. Master P had signed him to No Limit Records alongside Snoop Dogg and Mystikal. He had recently released "World War III," featuring cuts such as "Assassin Nation," "Genocide" and "War Party."
At Phipps ' trial, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Dearing misleadingly spliced together lyrics from two of Phipps' songs, according to a Huffington Post article reviewing Phipps' conviction published earlier this year.
Dearing worked under then-District Attorney Walter Reed, who left office in January. Reed, who was first elected to office in 1984, has since been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that include conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.
Spell earlier this month met with the new parish district attorney, Warren Montgomery, and the head of the DA's criminal division, Collin Sims. The purpose was to learn whether Montgomery, who as a private lawyer had met with Phipps' parents, would recuse himself from the case.
Montgomery, who was not retained by Phipps' family, declined to exit the case.
"At this time, the office doesn't see any reason to recuse itself," Lisa Frazier Page, a spokeswoman for the DA's Office, told HuffPost.
Phipps said he's willing to push aside his quest for justice if it means he could come home and begin building a relationship with his son.
"While certainly a new trial would provide the necessary platform to formally prove my innocence, I am definitely not closed to the idea of an alternative that would bring me home to my family much sooner," Phipps told HuffPost on Wednesday.
Phipps said he is "confident [his] attorneys have more than enough evidence to win," but he's also mindful of the time and expense of preparing for a new trial -- money his family doesn't have.
"Some may view any type of plea agreement as an admission of guilt," said Phipps. "Those people have obviously never been incarcerated in Louisiana. Furthermore, after being away from the people you love for 15 years, anxiety can become a serious motivator."
In the event that negotiations with the prosecutor's office stall, Phipps will file an application for post-conviction relief, based on the newly discovered evidence.
"I want as many opportunities to resolve this in my client's best interest as possible," Spell said. "Since they're willing to have these negotiations, it would be foolish not to at least address the opportunity."
The attorney added: "I'm optimistic. I know these guys [in the prosecutor's office] and I don't think they'd want to see a wrongful conviction stand or see an injustice done that is now under their watch. It was not under their watch before the media attention, but now it is."
Phipps said he also is optimistic.
"I am confident that the district attorney's decision will be one that is both fair and just for all parties involved," he said.
Green said he just wants his father home.
"It's hard because I can only see him at a visiting table and there are only so many things we can do, where if he was free we could go do anything," Green said. "My dad always tells me once he get out he's going to take me to a lot of places and we'll do a lot of things and I believe him. That's all he ever talks about -- me."
He paused, then added: "I'm praying for him to come home. It would be a nice gift for me and if he does, I'll cry, I'll cry because I'll be so happy he's finally home."