An investigation by the Medill Justice Project first published in The Lens questions the fairness of the trial that convicted No Limit Soldier Mac the Camouflage Assassin of manslaughter.

mac photo
Mac in No Limit days

Tuesday The Lens, our partner in the New Orleans Digital Alliance, ran a story, “Years After Rapper Was Convicted for Killing, Questions Raised about his Case,” which is the result of a three-month investigation by the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University, The Lens, and LSU. Here are excerpts from the story, which can be read in its entirety at The Lens. The complete story includes video interviews, an audio story on the lyrics, and original documents from the investigation and trial.

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.

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.”

When Phipps' case went to trial, his lyrics were treated as literal truth and used against him.

At trial, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Dearing used Phipps’ lyrics and his nickname “Mac the Camouflage Assassin” to help portray Phipps as a violent person capable of murder. He recited lyrics from the song “Murder, Murder, Kill Kill” and told the jury that Phipps “chose to live those words.”

As an artist signed to a label that specialized in gangsta rap, Phipps released songs that explored struggles of urban life, including crime and street shootings. Several experts said rap lyrics should not be interpreted as autobiographical statements.

Gangsta rap “is by definition centered around graphic depictions of violence,” said Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond. “Rap lyrics are not representations of the person. This is a distinction that we don’t have trouble making with any other fictional form.”

This issue came up numerous times in the trial, with Phipps’ attorneys objecting to the prosecutor’s continued references to Phipps’ lyrics.

“None of them … described what happened in that club,” Williams, Phipps’ attorney, said in an interview this year. “None of them were describing some accurate, violent event that McKinley was involved in… it was art.”

For the whole story, visit The Lens.