Ever since McKinley Phipps Jr. was convicted of manslaughter in the February 2000 shooting death of Barron Victor Jr. in a Slidell nightclub, his family has been crusading for his release. It has been a futile effort for more than a decade.
But now, for the first time since Phipps was convicted in 2001, his case has been taken up by a lawyer who thinks he may be able at least to get Phipps’ time in prison cut short.
In the wake of several recent news stories — one by the New Orleans-based investigative news organization The Lens and a series on the Huffington Post website — Phipps’ family has hired Covington attorney Buddy Spell to study the case.
Spell has zeroed in on several witnesses to the chaotic scene that night in Slidell, when a brawl at an open-microphone night at Club Mercedes ended with gunshots.
Several of those witnesses have told news organizations recently that they lied on the witness stand, and some of them said they were bullied by prosecutors into saying things they did not see.
Spell and his associate, Tara Zeller, have identified eight witnesses who might be able to help exonerate Phipps; they have contacted a handful of them so far.
“I have never seen a case where this many people flipped” and changed their original story, Spell said.
He acknowledged that any witness who recants sworn testimony has a credibility problem with any future judge or jury. He insists that he is treating every witness with as much skepticism as prosecutors would if the case ever came back to court.
And he said he plans to pursue the case only if he is convinced that Phipps — who went by the rap moniker Mac the Camouflage Assassin and had been signed to Master P’s No Limit label — is innocent.
At the same time, he is also trying to set realistic expectations for the case. He will probably stop short of trying to get the original conviction overturned.
Instead, he said, authorities may be open to a reduction in sentence, which could get Phipps out of jail before the end of his 30-year sentence.
Before he files anything in court, Spell plans to approach District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office to attempt to persuade it not to oppose his motion.
“The only efficient way for this to happen is for them to say there’s something there,” Spell said of the District Attorney’s Office. “They will be willing to hear us out because they need to be concerned about this.”
Phipps was prosecuted by Bruce Dearing. At least one witness — Yulon James — told the Huffington Post that people from the District Attorney’s Office “stalked” her and threatened to take away her child if she didn’t testify.
During the trial, Dearing took Phipps’ rap lyrics out of context and used them to portray him as a cold-blooded killer, according to Phipps’ supporters.
Dearing is still with the District Attorney’s Office and has been promoted to supervisor since Montgomery took office in January.
In another twist, Montgomery may have an ethical issue with his office getting involved in the case at all. Before they settled on Spell, Phipps’ parents brought the case to Montgomery, at the time a defense attorney who had not yet decided to run for district attorney. Montgomery eventually declined to take the case.
Phipps’ mother, Sheila, said that Montgomery checked with the victim’s family about whether they were amenable to a reduction in sentence rather than a new trial. When he learned that they weren’t, he declined the case.
Montgomery confirmed that he met with the Phipps family and declined to take the case, but he refused to comment on why.
Still, his discussions with the family could create a conflict of interest for Montgomery, said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola Law School professor. If Montgomery knows “substantially harmful information” about the case, it would create a conflict, he said.
Just the appearance should at least make recusal a consideration.
“He should refer it to the (attorney general) out of an abundance of caution,” Ciolino said.
Spell is optimistic that he will know his next steps in a month, even though he has yet to speak with the one person most interested in the outcome: McKinley Phipps.
Phipps, who is incarcerated at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, is “upbeat,” according to his mother. He’s always been hopeful, she said, knowing that his parents were still fighting for him. But the latest developments have buoyed his spirits.
“This is the first time he’s felt confident after 15 years of fighting,” she said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.