Mac Phipps: Was He Wrongfully Convicted And Imprisoned For Rap? : Louder Than A Riot Exploitation of prisoners. Sexual assault allegations. A Supreme Court ruling that could hold the keys to freedom. In the third and final installment of Mac's story, we follow the ripples of Mac's case two decades after the verdict was handed down. What do the roadblocks in Mac's fight for exoneration say about liberty and justice for all? And how does his imprisonment affect the loved ones he's left behind?
NPR logo Outsmarting The Devil: Mac Phipps (Pt 3)

SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Last time on LOUDER THAN A RIOT...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHAD PHIPPS: People were getting a little rowdier. And the next thing you know, it was like a pow.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: The person to be interviewed is a McKinley J. Phipps. What kind of performing do you do?

MAC PHIPPS: I rap.

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: You're a rap singer?

M PHIPPS: Yeah.

MONIQUE HART: He should have never been involved or even considered as a suspect.

JAMIE WILSON: They didn't want to listen. They just didn't want to hear.

AARON ZACHMEIER: The defendant is named Mac the Camouflage Assassin - slam dunk.

SHEILA PHIPPS: I said, my son didn't do this. I kept screaming, my son didn't do this.

M PHIPPS: I didn't believe in anything. I didn't believe in people no more. I didn't believe in the system anymore. I didn't believe in nothing. Everything was just dark.

CARMICHAEL: I'm sitting shotgun in Dee-1's Honda somewhere in uptown, a section of New Orleans made famous by No Limit and Cash Money back in the day. And Dee, he's bumping his 2009 debut album when he stops to introduce track No. 5.

DEE-1: This the song I did about Mac. It's called "Living Legend." And I was kind of rapping in a Mac cadence. So watch this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING LEGEND")

DEE-1: I send this song out to a living legend, my big brother in battle, Mr. McKinley Phipps. The world knows him as Mac - currently serving 30 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Check it out. Look. Look. (Rapping) Sometimes it's deeper than words. The Lord works in mysterious ways. His intentions are camouflaged.

CARMICHAEL: Dee-1, he met Mac for the first time in 2009. That's when Dee, who grew up reciting Mac's rhymes word for word, made a trip to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, the same facility where Mac was incarcerated. Dee was there to perform at a prison ministry service he'd been invited to by former felon turned activist, author Silky Slim Reed.

DEE-1: Right as we going through the gates checking in, Silky Slim - he was sitting in the front passenger seat. And he looked back. I was in the back seat. And he said, you know who locked up here, huh? And I said, who? Your boy, Mac. And I was like, bro. I was like, you kidding me? I'm like, oh, man. I wasn't ready for all this, bro. I'm about to meet Mac? Like, you got to be kidding me.

And I'm just tripping out, man. I'm like, well, we talking Mac, we talking one of my favorite rappers. I go - walk out in the courtyard where they had the inmates at right before we did this performance. And I see Mac, you know - remind me of myself, bro. Tall, slim, left-handed you know, these are all things we got in common - lyrical, New Orleans...

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

DEE-1: ...Those that grew up in the hood but ain't no - we ain't no gangsters. You know what I'm saying? Like...

CARMICHAEL: In it, not of it.

DEE-1: Exactly. In it, not of it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. This is the same Dee-1 who used his first big record advance to pay off his student loan debt to Sallie Mae. Then he made one of his biggest songs about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALLIE MAE BACK")

DEE-1: (Rapping) And I don't drive a Maybach. But guess what I did - I finished paying Sallie Mae back, Mae back. I finished paying Sallie Mae back, Mae back. I finished paying Sallie Mae back, Mae back.

CARMICHAEL: The stereotypical New Orleans rapper he definitely ain't.

DEE-1: I'm this positive dude. I'm this God-fearing dude who wants to put, you know, a message out there to be real, be righteous and be relevant.

MADDEN: Mac saw himself in Dee. More to the point, he saw the rapper he might have become had he stuck to the path less traveled. And to Dee's surprise, Mac had been keeping up with his career, too. Their initial meeting that day turned into a mentorship.

DEE-1: This when me and Mac used to write letters back and forth a whole lot, you know what I'm saying? Before we got heavy on the phone and in-person visits, it was a bunch of writing letters back and forth. At one time, Mac was teaching me how to play the keyboard and the piano through letters that he was writing me from prison. He was drawing out all the keys on a piano and on a keyboard and teaching me the major scales and the minor scales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEE-1: Just to look back at those letters, it's just like, you see the evolution of the relationship. When I tell y'all our relationship, it's just been pure as water and just - pure, never felt like there was a forced moment.

MADDEN: When they initially met, Dee's career was still in struggle mode. He met with a few labels, but nothing was sticking partially because of that squeaky-clean image.

DEE-1: When I met Mac, keep in mind, I wanted to be a rapper. But I was not a rapper, you know? I had a 9-to-5, you know? That's your most desperate time when it's like, yo, I want this so bad that all these people in my ear telling me if I change and if I conform and if I start being a little more street, a little more gangsta, a little more edgy or a little more sexual or a little more vulgar or whatever if they telling me this, then, you know, maybe they know what they're talking about. But Mac was always like, no, you got it already. You have it. Don't change. Just get better at what you already do. I met him right in that season of my life.

MADDEN: Mac had already made the mistakes he was coaching Dee to avoid because remember; he traded his image back in the day for No Limit success. And it seemed like a small compromise at first, but it ended up costing him major. Here's Mac again from a prison phone call.

M PHIPPS: When you're trying to make money doing something, you're going to try to cater to the most lucrative market at that time. And at that time, No Limit was successful. And selling rap that was...

AUTOMATED VOICE: You have one minute left.

M PHIPPS: ...That was, I would say, sexually driven, violently driven, to a certain extent, and drug-related. And I didn't know too much about drugs because I never sold drugs. So I could relate to things that I've seen in my life and tell those stories in a way that will get that message across to listeners for the record to sell.

CARMICHAEL: But the album Mac was working on by 2000, man, it was going to be his last on No Limit. He was building a bridge between his past self and his future self, between No Limit Mac and the artist he'd been before the tank. He was going to call it One Love. But Mac - he didn't get to make that turn because before he could make it right, everything went left that night in Club Mercedes.

MADDEN: And the price Mac's paid since - it's had a profound effect even on his biggest fan.

CARMICHAEL: What did you learn from his career, either directly or indirectly, that shaped your career?

DEE-1: That you can't outsmart the devil. Mac told me - you know, he said he tried to outsmart the devil. And he had this plan that - look; I know I could fit in with this brand, you know, and push out this style of hip-hop that's riddled with a lot of violence and just a lot of aggression. And he saw, like - really, this? Like, I could do this in my sleep, you know? It's not reflective of who I am. But this is easy. This actually causes me to dumb down my skill set. But I could do this if it's going to lead to this almighty dollar. Mac is, you know, constantly reminding me, like, ultimately, you know, you behave in a manner that's not fitting to the person you are, eventually, it's all going to catch up with you. You know what I'm saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEE-1: I'm what he was before he saw a need to try to outsmart the devil.

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: And from NPR Music, this is LOUDER THAN A RIOT.

MADDEN: Where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America.

CARMICHAEL: In our final installment of Mac's story, we're going to follow the ripples of the case over the past 20 years.

MADDEN: We look at the status of things since that 2001 verdict, from the crimes committed by the lawmen who put Mac away to a recent Supreme Court decision that has the potential to change everything. What do these new developments reveal about the long shadow of Louisiana law?

CARMICHAEL: And while Mac's family and supporters continue to wait, they wonder, what's it going to take for Mac to gain freedom? But first, was Mac's arrest part of a backlash to Black-owned hip-hop labels? We consider the evidence and ask, were the labels specifically targeted by law enforcement?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: One of the last joints Mac released as a No Limit artist was a song called "Lockdown."

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC SONG, "LOCKDOWN (REMIX)")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) I was on my way upstate for felonies. Mac would never see the sunshine. These good old times, it's haunting me. My family is wanting me to break free.

CARMICHAEL: The song is about a man serving time for a crime he's been falsely convicted of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC SONG, "LOCKDOWN (REMIX)")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Instead I'm in the pit over some shit I didn't commit. It was the n***** I was with, but I'm silent. It's funny how Lucifer can seduce you.

It was crazy. It was based on a dream I had. And I got up, and I wrote the dream down, and then I turned it into a rap.

CARMICHAEL: Just two years after releasing that song, Mac started his 30-year prison sentence. And that dream, man, it turned into a living nightmare.

M PHIPPS: Prison is like a cold glass of water. It wakes you quicker than hell. It has been an adjustment, you know? In some ways, it has helped me mature a lot. And, you know, in other ways, I guess it kind of keep you behind time.

CARMICHAEL: Mac Phipps wasn't the only No Limit artist that got caught up in the legal system. As No Limit records rose to fame, its money, its power and success wasn't the only thing it was known for. In 1999, twin brothers Daniel and David Garcia, also known as No Limit duo Kane & Abel - they copped a plea in a federal case that linked them to convicted New Orleans drug lord Richard Pena. The feds tried to get the brothers to flip on Master P, but they refused to cooperate. So Master P was never charged. Even still, P definitely felt the eyes of the law on his back.

MASTER P: I was targeted. But after they realized, you know, every time I had an incident, I'd say, look, man; I know these people. Yes, I do. I grew up with them. But I don't do no wouldn't do no business with them. They come from the same hood I come from, and I'm doing the right thing.

CARMICHAEL: While Master P avoided charges in that case, not everybody in his circle has been so lucky.

MADDEN: Yeah. I mean, P's own brother Corey, better known as C-Murder, he got convicted for murder in a case that's so similar to Mac's, it's kind of uncanny. C was performing in a small club, and someone got killed. C got convicted for the crime by a non-unanimous jury. And just like Mac's case, witnesses in C's - they've since recanted their testimony. Recently, celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Monica, C's one-time fiancee - they've all come forward to advocate for his freedom.

CARMICHAEL: Mac, on the other hand - his case has never quite gotten the same level of attention. I had a long conversation with Master P about profiling, Mac's case and where he thinks the responsibility really lies. But before all that, he told me what motivated him to sign Mac in the first place and why he feels like Mac got handed a raw deal.

MASTER P: Mac was probably one of the best artists ever came to No Limit. And this guy, for us, was like our down South Nas. He was lyrical. He probably one of the nicest guys I ever met. So when I heard the news, what he was incarcerated for it, it was a shocker. Like, this guy shouldn't be incarcerated. And I know that his music got him incarcerated, but they got the wrong guy. I mean, when you talk about assassin, we talking about verbal assassin. We talking about how he killed people with his lyrics. And I think the system mixed that up with what he is as an entertainer.

CARMICHAEL: It seemed like Mac was starting to kind of change his style. And I know he was working on his last album on No Limit at the time that this happened. Had y'all talked about the direction he was trying to go toward with his career?

MASTER P: I was with Mac 100%, whatever he wanted to do. No Limit is like a university. You come. You graduate. You move on. That's what Snoop did. That's what all the stars did that was with No Limit. And I was happy for them.

The only thing I told Mac - I said, you don't need to go to no club for $5,000 when you've got millions of dollars in the bank. That was my last conversation with him - a hood club. When you make decisions and choices, you've got to suffer the consequences, even if you innocent. Think about it. Somebody lost their life in that club. Even in my brother's case, somebody lost their life in that club. And guess what. The bigger fish to catch is putting it on the artist, putting it on somebody that's talking about street stuff in their music. And you just guilty by your lyrics now.

CARMICHAEL: After his arrest, did y'all have any involvement, or were you involved in this case early on on any level?

MASTER P: No 'cause I told him - he'll tell you. I love him, but I told him. I say, if you get caught up in anything, then I'm not coming to see you. I'm not dealing with that. That's on you. And he was like, all right, boss. I'm gone. And that's how it went.

CARMICHAEL: Is that because he was doing this club show that you didn't want him to do?

MASTER P: Yes. And I told him that.

CARMICHAEL: Why was that so important to you in terms of, like, you know, not dealing with these hole-in-the-wall clubs and whatnot? What was the thing about that?

MASTER P: Because my whole thing was safety - getting my people home to their families. We're one of the biggest companies in the world now, and you don't want to live in those same environments that you used to live in because you made it out. Why go backwards? Everybody that went in a club, a hole-in-the-wall club, now they're fighting for their freedom - for no reason. And you got millions of dollars. I mean, you don't need to be there.

This generation have to learn that - keeping it real with my people. Keeping it real with what people? People that keep it real want to make it out the ghetto, feed their families, get a nice house and live a nice life and don't have to look over their shoulder and don't have to be worried when the police pull you over. We're going backwards. We're giving them a reason to play with our freedom and our lives. Both of these guys done lost 18 to 20 years away from their families. That mean you ain't get a chance to raise your kids. You really ain't get a chance to enjoy the fruit of your labor that you worked so hard to make it out the ghetto. I'm not giving that up for nobody, especially if I didn't commit a crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Now, remember; P had moved his whole operation to Baton Rouge to get away from the streets of New Orleans. But sometimes, as they say, more money, more problems.

MASTER P: When you come out the ghetto and you make the type of money that No Limit made, then you will be stereotyped. But my goals, my dreams, was bigger than the projects. And that's how I was able to survive. And you have to show people that you're not like everybody else. But when you start hanging around the wrong people, then you become a bigger target. And I just think that's what Mac got caught up at. That's what my brother got caught up at. They are victims of their environments because everybody want to hang with you now, good and bad people. And that's what my brother learned. That's what Mac learned in the end. They went to prison, so that's a harsh reality that we have to live with now.

CARMICHAEL: But you know, if it sounds like P is blaming Mac and his brother for being wrongfully convicted, you know, you got to remember where P came from, right? I mean, the Calliope was the most violent housing project in the city considered the most violent in the nation at the time. I mean, P lost his own brother to that violence. So for P, once you get out of that environment, going back is like risking it all for nothing. Despite the fact that No Limit was cooking up that raw, man, Master P saw that as a steppingstone to getting rich and respectable. And he expected everybody on the label to have that same mentality.

MADDEN: Yeah. And this ain't a new tune for Master P. He's been on this for years.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah 'cause back in 2007, when Congress held hearings on the explicit language and violence portrayed in rap, man, P showed up sounding like he was ready to repent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASTER P: My whole goal for being here is to preserve hip-hop. And I know this is a culture that is involving - and I watched the first panel. We talked about society. It's definitely a problem from society, but we are inflaming this problem by not being responsible. And I want to take that responsibility. First, I want to tell everybody here that I was once part of the problem. And hopefully, as I move on in life and I raise kids, I want to be a part of the solution.

CARMICHAEL: I think at the time, a lot of people were surprised at the tone that you struck. You know, here you were, you know, the biggest hip-hop label owner - independent - of all time. Fans all over the country and the world grew up on your music. And in some ways, it sounded like you were almost - kind of had an apologetic tone about the kind of music that you had made at No Limit. I was always curious about that. What kind of brought that on for you?

MASTER P: Growth, being a man, being accountable for your actions and not being afraid to change and that we are going to. And if we're going to be around, we're going to be able to open up businesses in corporate America and do other things. You're not going to just look at me as a hip-hop person. Before it's over, you're going to look at me as an entrepreneur, a businessman and a philanthropist. And we have to grow as people, or they're going to always stereotype us. So I didn't mind sitting in front of them people and explaining to them who we are and what we are evolving into with education and God.

MADDEN: Rodney, part of this feels like respectability politics. And the problem with respectability politics is that it reinforces that Black people aren't respected or worthy of respect in the first place and, in P's case, that the art of rap is something to apologize for, even though he got rich off it. You know, I'm not having that.

CARMICHAEL: See, I think for P, though, like, he knew he couldn't change how the police or society viewed him, right? So the most he could do was change himself. And the funny thing is, you know, Master P and Mac - they echo each other in some ways. I mean, they both talk about growth and freeing themselves from that No Limit image.

MADDEN: OK, OK.

CARMICHAEL: But clearly, there are definitely other hip-hop moguls who felt like they were being targeted simply for representing the streets. I mean, in the late '90s and early 2000s, you had hip-hop labels around the country that started catching heat, from Death Row to Murder Inc.

MADDEN: Yeah, even one of Master P's earliest mentors got caught up.

J PRINCE: I definitely don't feel that it was a coincidence that we all got hit around the same time.

MADDEN: That's J. Prince. Remember; he's the head of Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston. And he was also Master P's early inspiration to move his whole label back to the South. And as Rap-A-Lot started to rise, J. says it was the music that put him on law enforcement's radar.

PRINCE: I started feeling it with my movement with the Geto Boys. They paint the portrait of a gang or some kind of negative movement. I drew more brothers from the streets. You know what I mean? All of a sudden, I'm building this movement. And that became a movement that was hated by law enforcement in Texas.

CARMICHAEL: In 1998, the DEA started this big investigation trying to prove Rap-A-Lot was a drug trafficking front. Now, J. Prince definitely had a hustling past, but he says he was done with all of that by the time he got Rap-A-Lot cracking. Still, he knew the DEA wasn't going to let him live it down, so he went on the offense. And see, here's where J. Prince's reaction is totally different than Master P's. J. hired his own private investigator, who he says turned up evidence that the DEA agents were corrupt.

MADDEN: J.'s claims were vindicated last year when feds caught and convicted one of those DEA agents for corruption.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. J. Prince - man, he went after the DEA just like they were going after him. And he was loud as hell about it, especially on record.

PRINCE: We didn't bite our tongue when, you know, subject matter such as crooked officers and exposing, you know, different things where they were concerned. We were speaking for our people.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Rap-A-Lot wasn't scared to call them out. Scarface even released a song where he name-dropped the DEA agents on the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK ME IN MY EYES")

SCARFACE: (Rapping) Listen up, my n*****. The FBI been watching you, especially if you Black and trying to leave the streets and get off in this music. You see the way they doing me, running in my crib, making n***** lie.

PRINCE: Sometimes we become targets for other reasons than what's portrayed. And, you know, there was nothing there because I wasn't doing nothing. It became bigger than me not doing nothing. I think it became a target on my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: So certain labels were definitely feeling the pressure from law enforcement. But what happens when the people meant to uphold justice end up being the real culprits?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: There's this belief that Black and brown people inherently distrust the justice system, that we don't want to talk to police. But that's something that many of us have had to learn the hard way.

MADDEN: Just look at Mac's case. He was read his Miranda rights, but he went ahead and spoke to police without a lawyer anyway because he trusted the system would believe him. Jamie Wilson went to the police to tell them Mac couldn't have shot Barron Victor Jr. because she trusted the system would believe her. Thomas Williams confessed to shooting Barron Victor, Jr. He trusted the system to believe him.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. But the people responsible for convicting Mac - District Attorney Walter Reed and Sheriff Jack Strain - they abused that trust for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK STRAIN: I don't want to see temporary housing because of Katrina turn into long-term housing for a bunch of thugs and trash that don't need to be in St. Tammany Parish.

CARMICHAEL: That's Sheriff Jack Strain in a local TV interview warning New Orleans residents to stay away from St. Tammany shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STRAIN: New Orleans chooses to coddle people or criminals in that area that - you know, that tend to get away with a great deal. We will not coddle that trash in St. Tammany Parish. If they come to St. Tammany Parish, we're going to pursue them. We're going to arrest them. Our prosecutors are going to prosecute them, and our judges are going to convict them. Now, you know, I don't get into calling people names and all of that fact. But if you're going to walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and Chee Wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy.

CARMICHAEL: Chee Wee hairstyles - I mean, I've heard of sundown towns back in the Jim Crow era. But getting harassed by police because of your hairstyle - man, that's a new low.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STRAIN: We're going to deal with you one way or another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Now, when Sheriff Strain went on this racist rant right after Katrina, it got a lot of attention around the country. NPR News even ran a commentary on it comparing him to the fictional TV sheriff played by Andy Griffith back in the day. But not even a stereotypically sleepy Southern town like 1960s Mayberry could compete with the bass-ackward (ph) ways of St. Tammany's leading lawman. I mean, this is the same parish that David Duke now calls home.

MADDEN: Yup. And voters in St. Tammany - they kept on voting for Jack Strain, along with the District Attorney Walter Reed. They did it for decades. That's because together, the two ran on a tough-on-crime platform. And voters were sold on their message. They were practically untouchable.

CARMICHAEL: And at the time, St. Tammany - it was known for consistently locking up more people than any other parish in Louisiana, which for years was the state with the highest incarceration rate in America, the nation with the highest incarceration rate. So yeah, St. Tammany Parish - they were No. 1 in the world. And DA Walter Reed - he even embraced the parish's nickname, St. Slammany (ph).

MADDEN: He and the sheriff were among the most powerful public officials in St. Tammany. They ruled it with an iron fist. Remember; we found evidence that the sheriff's office pressured witnesses to implicate Mac in the shooting that night at Club Mercedes. And the DA - he orchestrated the prosecution that used Mac's persona and lyrics against him.

CARMICHAEL: And a lot of people we spoke to for this story, they say they're still scared to speak out. But Walter and Jack, they finally tried those strong arm tactics on somebody with the power to fight back.

TERRY KING: It really became a this-good-ol'-boy network versus my-good-ol'-boy network.

CARMICHAEL: That's self-proclaimed good ol' boy Terry King. He works as an auditor for Christian finance company. And what he exposed about Walter and Jack, it's directly related to Mac's case. But peep this. It's about to be a wild ride, so y'all hold on.

MADDEN: Terry and Walter Reed had bad blood. It all began when Terry and his wife went public with ethics complaints about her boss, St. Tammany's coroner, who just happened to be a political ally of Walter's.

KING: When I took down the coroner, I knew that the sheriff and the district attorney were going to continue to come after me until they could put me in jail because I was a wild card.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Terry - he had a hunch that Walter and Jack were cooking the books, and he was determined to find out how. So he started auditing their finances using public record requests. But he also started hearing about how they were violating people's civil rights, so he set up meetings with activists in the Black community. And he fed those complaints about Walter and Jack's potential crimes to an FBI agent named Mike Anderson.

KING: So everybody's going around the table talking about, oh, I've been beaten by the cops on the side of the road when they, you know - because they thought I was somebody else. I mean, it's just crazy stories. Well, one lady who was there said, well, I worked for Citizens Bank. And Jack Strain have safe deposit boxes on the bottom of the stack, the big ones that are, you know, full of cash. And it's - I lean over and tell Mike Anderson - I said, look. I said, is it legal to have that amount of cash in a safe deposit box? I said, I didn't think you could really do that. And he goes, well - he said, this just got much more interesting.

MADDEN: The question was, where was that cash coming from?

CARMICHAEL: Now, Terry started to hear about a work release program operating out of the Parish jail. Work release, of course, is intended to give prisoners a chance to start earning a wage before they're officially released. The jail can take a percentage of the pay to administer the program, you know, for overhead. But here's the catch - St. Tammany jail, man, they were taking around two-thirds of the inmates' pay.

KING: I'm realizing they're bringing in about $3 million a year. And they're able to keep this.

MADDEN: Whew. Here's how it worked. Jack and two of his deputies created a private company to run the work release program.

KING: What was really going on was all this cash that was coming in, they were giving the sheriff, personally, a whole bunch of the cash - the majority of the cash. Then they were also having to pay the sheriff's office about $400,000 a year. And then they would keep the remainder of it.

CARMICHAEL: Man, that's some "New Jim Crow" 2.0 like a mug.

MADDEN: I know, right? And according to the federal indictment, Jack and his deputies used the money they stole for family vacations, hunting trips, jewelry, even a new truck.

KING: And, I mean, that was literally a slave operation.

CARMICHAEL: Just last year, the sheriff was federally indicted on 16 counts for the work release fraud. But before that case could even go to trial, man, this story took a whole nother dark and twisted turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Today a St. Tammany Parish grand jury indicted Jack Strain on two counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated incest, one count of indecent behavior with a juvenile and a count of sexual battery. The charges are shocking for many. And indications are this is just the beginning.

MADDEN: Four victims have been identified in that case. And Jack Strain is awaiting trial on those charges and the federal case on the worker release scam. He's pled not guilty in both cases. Jack Strain declined to comment for our story.

CARMICHAEL: As for Walter Reed, the feds eventually indicted him on 18 counts of campaign finance and insurance fraud. And he was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to four years behind bars. But he was recently put on home confinement due to COVID-19. Now, through his lawyer, Walter Reed wrote that his conviction had nothing to do with bribery or irregularities as to the administration of cases processed by he or anyone in his office. He also wrote that Mac's case was 20 years ago. And he has no independent recollection of the case. But he is, quote, "not aware of any improprieties."

MADDEN: Looking back on everything he knows now, Terry says targeting Mac would've been part of the DA and sheriff's MO.

KING: He would probably have used that to - and it's probably more for Strain - but to say, yeah, you know, you've got these gangsta rap people coming up here making all these lyrics about how they're going to hurt people and things. And we're just not going to put up with that in St. Tammany Parish. That absolutely would be something that you would hear up there.

MADDEN: And pressuring witnesses with obstruction charges, Terry says that's straight out the playbook.

KING: So what Walter Reed and his henchmen would do - if they wanted you to testify a certain way, they'd go to you and say, look; we need you to say this. And if you don't, we're going to charge you with obstruction of justice or, you know, find some charge, drug charge or whatever. And we're going to put a felony on you. And you're going to go to prison for five years or, in some cases, 15 years. Or just testify the way we want you to, and nothing will happen.

CARMICHAEL: But, see; Terry, he admits that he never thought about people in Mac's position before all this went down. He went from the type of person who would have likely voted for Walter and Jack to somebody who has a whole new perspective on the system.

KING: I never thought anything about mass incarceration because, you know, I'm not a, you know - I'm not going to prison. I knew I wasn't going to prison. And I didn't know anybody who was really in prison. And I said, but when I got frivolous criminal charges filed against me, all of a sudden mass incarceration became something that was at the front of my mind.

CARMICHAEL: In 2015, documentary filmmaker Michael Shahin - he asked Mac about Walter Reed and Jack Strain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL SHAHIN: There is some karma going on. I mean, the DA got indicted. It's - from what I hear, it's a matter of time before the sheriff gets indicted. And, you know, I mean, how does that make you feel?

M PHIPPS: Things are not always what they seem. And I'm living proof of that. So I try to give everybody the same benefit of the doubt that I want. But there's also a part of me that feels this is just, too, because this is what you've done to me.

MADDEN: So the men who ran St. Tammany with a tough-on-crime approach and were responsible for sending Mac and so many others away, they went down themselves. How's that for karma?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And it even seemed like there was an opportunity for some movement on Mac's case. After Walter Reed went to prison, the new DA, he promised a review of all of Walter's former cases, including Mac's, for misconduct. But crime reporter David Lohr, who walked us through Mac's case - man, he says that was a joke from the get-go.

DAVID LOHR: You know, obviously, these people were crooked individuals. And now we're supposed to trust that every prosecution or arrest they've ever made was in good faith? I mean, it's ridiculous.

CARMICHAEL: The new DA eventually did appoint somebody to look into Mac's case.

LOHR: Well, guess who he assigned to it. He assigned Bruce Dearing, the guy who had prosecuted Mac in the courtroom.

CARMICHAEL: The same guy who sold the jury on Mac being an assassin.

LOHR: Doing it doesn't even make sense. So, I mean, the whole thing was just a pony show. It was a joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDEN: But earlier this year, Mac got a new glimmer of hope. And it came after a ruling from the United States Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The U.S. Supreme Court decided this morning that non-unanimous juries violate a person's constitutional rights and must end.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Today among the laws is now being required to come up with unanimous jury verdicts.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Louisiana and Oregon were the only remaining states that allowed convictions based on a majority vote. Louisiana's law...

MADDEN: Remember; even though Mac's case was decided by 12 jurors, only 10 of them found Mac guilty. But in Louisiana in 2001, that was enough.

STANTON JONES: The requirement of unanimous juries stems back hundreds of years. It predates even the founding of the United States.

MADDEN: That's Stanton Jones.

JONES: I'm an attorney and a partner in the Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group at Arnold & Porter.

MADDEN: And for the purposes of our story, he's Mac's current lawyer. See, the right to a jury trial is one of those bedrock American principles. But for more than a century, Louisiana had a law on the books that specifically allowed a person to be convicted by a jury that was non-unanimous. Why? An equally timeless American principle - racism.

CARMICHAEL: It happened during Reconstruction, when Black people were first allowed on juries. Then, in 1898, Louisiana held a constitutional convention.

JONES: And the specific, explicit purpose of that convention was to, quote, "establish the supremacy of the white race." Those are the words of the people who wrote the Louisiana law. And the specific allowance for non-unanimous jury convictions was very deliberately designed to eliminate the influence and power of Black jurors.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. White Louisianans - they knew that any given jury was unlikely to have more than two Black jurors on it at a time.

JONES: And so by this Louisiana constitutional provision allowing convictions on a 10-2 vote basically meant that you could just convince the 10 white jurors. And it didn't matter if the two Black jurors voted to acquit.

CARMICHAEL: But here's the thing - that ruling is not automatically retroactive for old cases like Mac's. Even still, Stanton thinks there's reason to be hopeful. See, in a majority opinion in this case, Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch - he actually wrote that sometimes judges make mistakes. That's what's allowed this non-unanimous jury rule to stand for so long. But he also ruled, quote, "it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right."

JONES: And what he's speaking to there is the fact that the court, by rejecting non-unanimous juries, might mean that some other people's convictions have to be thrown out. That's the consequence of being right about the Sixth Amendment unanimous jury requirement. And so that's what Mac's case is about. Mac's case is about a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court getting this issue right.

CARMICHAEL: And that's what Stanton's betting on. Based on this ruling, he's set to file a petition in Louisiana state court to throw out Mac's conviction.

JONES: It's illegal. It's unfair. And it stems from these overtly racist systems that were put in place over a hundred years ago. And so we'll be asking the Louisiana state courts without delay to finally do justice in Mac's case.

MADDEN: For Mac's part, he's been disappointed too many times. He's talked in past interviews about not getting his hopes up.

M PHIPPS: You know, I've been hearing, you know - all of these things are good. Don't get me wrong. Don't get it twisted. All of these things are good. But I guess I'm at the point now where until I see movement in my case, it's like, OK, all that stuff sounds good, but I need to see something. I need some proof of something actually happening.

CARMICHAEL: While this Supreme Court ruling could potentially work in Mac's favor, the same court still isn't quite ready to take on rap as a free speech issue when it comes to criminal cases.

MADDEN: Yeah. In 2019, Stanton represented Pittsburgh rapper Mayhem Mal, who asked the court to take up his case, saying he'd been sent to prison for a song that should have been protected under the First Amendment.

JONES: The reality is that for a lot of these lyrics, whether you consider the artist authentic or not, the lyrics are not literal. So one of the lines, an actual line in the song, was something like, I'm going to stab him in his feet. And the reason he said feet is because he needed a word that rhymed with street.

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) OK.

JONES: And that person was criminally prosecuted and convicted and served prison time on the theory that that was a real threat against a police officer - to stab him in his feet on the street.

MADDEN: Killer Mike, 21 Savage, Chance the Rapper and more co-signed his argument with a supporting brief.

CARMICHAEL: But the Supreme Court never actually took up Mayhem Mal's case. Even still, that hadn't stopped hip-hop from pushing back. Take the case of LA rapper Drakeo the Ruler. Now, he continues to sit in jail for 2019 murder case. But on a project that he recorded and released from jail this summer, he does a rare thing in rap by breaking character to speak directly to the absurdity of prosecutors using his lyrics against him on the song "Fictional."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FICTIONAL")

DRAKEO THE RULER: (Rapping) Might sound real, but it's fictional. I love that my imagination gets to you. I'm a real n****, and you fictional. I could never, ever let a broke bitch get to me. You fictional. It's fictional. You fictional.

CARMICHAEL: For Mac, not even 20 years in prison has dampened his creative spirit. It's that same spirit that keeps people fighting to bring him home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Everybody that knows Mac says the same thing - he's made the most of his time despite being in prison. He's never been written up for any kind of infraction. He's been a mentor to other prisoners. He even runs a music program and plays keyboards for several prison bands.

MADDEN: And in 2014, after more than a decade inside, Mac was introduced to a family friend on the outside named Angelique.

ANGELIQUE PHIPPS: First impressions - it was just like, wow, this guy is really, really smart. He's a thinker. He's so creative. It was a little bit like not meeting someone for the first time but having them, like, walk back into your life.

MADDEN: Mac and Angelique hit it off. Pretty soon they were a serious couple. She says it's not easy, but she thinks of it as a long-distance relationship. The months became years, and the two of them, they started discussing marriage. Then, a few years ago, an old friend was transferred to the same prison as Mac, someone qualified to be his best man, someone who could help with the planning and be there for Mac on one of the biggest days of his life.

CARMICHAEL: It was his best friend from the No Limit era, Corey Miller, better known as C-Murder, Master P's baby bro.

A PHIPPS: I would call them, like, the fire and ice combo. C is the hot-headed one. McKinley's always the calm one.

CARMICHAEL: Together, Mac and C did their best to turn a small prison courtyard into a wedding venue, flowers and all. Dee-1 was there, too, along with Mac's parents.

A PHIPPS: You know, we made the best of it. Like, you look at some of our wedding pictures, you would not know that that's where that was (laughter). But, you know, that's - it definitely was kind of a hard decision. As a little girl, you always dream of, like, this fancy, beautiful wedding. But I kind of looked at it as, you know, I'm with the person I'm supposed to be with, regardless of what the situation is. At the end of the day, those things fade away.

MADDEN: Since they met, Angelique has been with Mac through every twist and turn in his case. In 2016, when Mac was recommended for clemency, it looked like maybe he'd come home. But despite his perfect record as an inmate, it was denied. The committee ruled he hadn't served enough time. And at that point, he had already been in there for 16 years. A year ago, Mac was granted another clemency hearing, and they're still waiting for the date to be set.

A PHIPPS: I also have a good understanding of the money that's made on each inmate every single day that they sit behind bars. He's valuable in a whole lot of ways as far as just day by day what the state gets paid or what the prisons get paid. You know, he's valuable as a mediator, as a mentor, as kind of a 14-cents-an-hour employee for whatever you need him to do. He's very valuable to keep around.

MADDEN: Angelique says Mac keeps his spirits up through all this. But she's had a harder time.

A PHIPPS: I guess the hardest thing is just all of - just - I guess just feeling the disappointment and anger, you know, just being honest - and anger for that being somebody that you love so much.

S PHIPPS: I've heard people say this before, but it's really true - is when someone is locked up in prison, it seems like the whole family is locked up, you know? All of us will never feel free until - till he's out, until that person is out of prison, especially someone that's in there for a crime he didn't commit, you know?

CARMICHAEL: We're in the art studio of Sheila Phipps, Mac's mom. It's full of portraits that she's painted over the years. When we got there, she invited us to sit down and talk.

S PHIPPS: You want anything to drink? We got some beer.

CARMICHAEL: OK (laughter).

Since Mac's been away, she's used art to cope with his absence. After one of Mac's appeals was denied, she started by painting a portrait of her son to help tell his story.

S PHIPPS: ...Everything else. And all this back here, all this stuff is mine. It's my work. And actually...

MADDEN: Mac's portrait.

S PHIPPS: And Mac's portrait - you've probably seen it online.

CARMICHAEL: But then she thought to herself, why just stop at Mac? Through her son, she started corresponding with a lot of other men who were sitting in prison for crimes they claim they didn't commit. So she started painting portraits of them, too.

S PHIPPS: I remember, before this happened to my son, every time I'd see a young man - especially a young Black man - being arrested on television, you know, and I always would think, yeah, they did it. I don't know that person. I don't know what kind of background is. But you know, the way the media portrayed him, he had to have done it. And don't get me wrong. There's a lot of young men, and I know that people - there's criminals out there. But there are a lot of young people who get arrested for crimes they didn't commit. Now I can see it differently. I don't see it the same way anymore. You know, it changed my perspective altogether about the justice system altogether.

MADDEN: Sheila says Mac has found ways to change his perspective, too, in order to keep himself going.

S PHIPPS: He thinks like he's already out or he's - you know what I'm saying? I can't explain it, but you know what I mean? He don't think about being confided in prison. He think about, you know, always in mind, always dreaming about what he's going to do and where he's going to go and what he's going to continue doing. And I think that helps him a whole lot.

CARMICHAEL: I imagine, like, after so many years, just to be able to cope, you've had to shut off a part of your emotions. Like, is that the case? Or like, how have you been able to go through this without, like, just totally losing it?

S PHIPPS: Well, I usually turn off emotions in the public (laughter). You know, I have my moments by myself. You know, my husband and I - you know, it's not like I'm totally numb to it. When these get-togethers and the birthdays and the holidays - you know, I have my moments. I get teary-eyed. I might cry about it because he should be here, you know? And I pray to God about it, you know? And I try to stay strong for my kids and my husband and for Mac because if he knew that I was upset, Lord, he would just - he wouldn't want that. He's just - he's so sensitive. He don't want me to be upset. I just pray that this all will be over with and Mac will be able to see his family again, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Do you allow yourself to think much about what it will feel like to see him walk out of those prison gates some day?

S PHIPPS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I know I'm going to be ecstatic. Oh, yeah, I'm already knowing. Oh, Lord. Yes, indeed. I'll be so happy. I'll be so happy. You know, I already know I'm probably going to just, you know, hang out with him for at least 24 hours. We've got to hang out somewhere together, you know - just me, him and his dad and just hanging out, just talking and running his mouth up. He's going to probably want to do that anyway 'cause, believe it or not, he's a big baby, you know, 'cause he knows he really is (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M PHIPPS: I have a song called "Favorite Girl." And the first verse says, (rapping) thank you for giving me rest. Thank you for telling Pops yes and for always being the best mama I could have asked for. I couldn't have asked more. Sheila Ann met a Vietnam veteran, a weird cat, but they still got together. And it wasn't all grand, but in God's hands, anything is possible, even through obstacles. With not a lot of dough, she made miracles like nothing that I've ever seen, my ebony queen. Do you remember when you first heard me rhyme? I hesitated because I was sure you would hate it. But to my surprise - and every mama should, she said, little McKinley, that sounded so good. You were always my No. 1 fan, and I'm always your No. 1 man, even Pops understand. You're my favorite girl.

And that's kind of how I describe my mama. Mama always - she always encouraged me and always told me to follow my dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: And one of Mac's long-time supporters continues to be amazed by Mac's selflessness. Here's Dee-1.

DEE-1: That's just who he is. And it's just cool to see that prison has not - not only prison, but a wrongful conviction which lands you in prison for over 20 years - has not changed that about his character.

CARMICHAEL: Well, speaking of selflessness, I want to read you this message that Mac sent us. I just want to read it to you and get your reaction on it.

DEE-1: OK.

CARMICHAEL: He says, make no mistake about it, there's but one true victim in this tragedy, and that is Barron Victor Jr. While Louisiana's criminal justice system did indeed fail me, I failed this young man and his family. It was my failure to adequately provide a safe environment for the patrons of this event that ultimately led to his death. I can only hope that Barron's family will someday forgive me as I've forgiven those who wrongfully accused me of killing him.

DEE-1: Bro, that's so powerful. That's so powerful. That - I got goosebumps, bro, just sitting here listening to that, man. He's taking ownership and taking responsibility for the environment that his music helped to create that particular night in that nightclub. But in the same breath, he's also reaffirming his innocence in terms of not being the person who pulled the trigger. So I don't want anyone to mistake Mac's admission in that note that he wrote you all for an admission of some punishable crime, you know, that should land him in prison.

The selflessness that he speaks of is referring to Barron Victor as the victim in this incident. And he was a victim in this incident, but Mac is definitely a victim as well. The people who metaphorically pulled the trigger on getting Mac convicted and locked up - those are the perpetrators in this crime against McKinley Phipps. Who pays for that, you know? Who gets, you know - who gets reprimanded for that?

CARMICHAEL: And when Dee said that Mac tried to outsmart the devil back in the day, he was talking about the music industry. But there's a lot of people in this story who had to outsmart the devil to survive.

MADDEN: Terry King did it his way. Master P and J Prince - they did it their own ways. And for Mac in 2020, outsmarting the devil could look a lot like justice.

M PHIPPS: Me being let out of here would be justice for me. You know, just me being out of here and being able to live my life from here, to be outside these walls and not be bound by the limitations of this place - that would be justice for me.

MADDEN: Mac is still fighting for early release, but even if he doesn't get it, he's got a strong chance of getting out on good behavior in four years.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and here's the thing. Mac - man, he's still got something to say. Hip-hop - it ain't just a young boy's game no more. I mean, at age 43, Mac - he's actually four years younger than Nas, who just put out his 12th studio album. There's a lot of rappers who thrive post-prison in this day and age. The game has changed, but this time, it could finally work in Mac's favor.

M PHIPPS: Of course it has changed. Of course it has changed. That's inevitable. Everything in life changes. The good thing is...

AUTOMATED VOICE: You have one minute left.

M PHIPPS: You know, the good thing is my music is a reflection of those changes. And I don't, you know, expect to come out here to a easy road. No, there's a road ahead. But I do believe that there are several people across the country who have been waiting to hear what it is that has been falling over in my mind. And I think that they're all way more than enough to support the music that I want to do. And I'm just ready. I'm ready to do it for them, and I'm ready to do it for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARMICHAEL: Next time on LOUDER THAN A RIOT, we take you inside the mixtape raid that changed the culture of rap forever.

DJ DRAMA: If they can lock up Drama, nobody's safe. This shit's done. It's over. It's a wrap.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL SONG, "VISIBLE WALLS")

MADDEN: This episode was written by Matt Ozug, Dustin DeSoto, Rodney Carmichael and me, Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: Michael May edited this one. It was produced by Dustin DeSoto, Adelina Lancianese and Matt Ozug.

MADDEN: With help from Michael May and Sam Leeds. Josh Newell is our engineer.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N'jeri Eaton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISIBLE WALLS")

KASSA OVERALL: (Singing) I hope they let me go tonight.

MADDEN: And shout out to the bigwigs, Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original music by Kassa Overall; additional scoring by Ramtin Arablouei - appreciate you folk.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact-checkers are Jane Gilvin and Nicolette Khan.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks to everybody who lent their time and expertise to Mac's story, especially the Phipps family, David Lohr, Michael Shahin, plus Michel Martin and all our friends at Weekend All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISIBLE WALLS")

OVERALL: (Singing) I pray that you can sleep tonight.

MADDEN: Hit us up on Twitter. We're @LouderThanARiot. Rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. And to follow along with the music you heard throughout this episode, check out the LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlist on Apple Music and Spotify now. And if you want to email us, it's louder@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL SONG, "VISIBLE WALLS")

CARMICHAEL: This has been LOUDER THAN A RIOT from NPR Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISIBLE WALLS")

OVERALL: (Singing) I hope they let me go tonight.

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