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'Louder Than A Riot' Podcast Finds Evidence Rapper Mac Might Be Innocent

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 2001, the rapper Mac Phipps was convicted of manslaughter. His crime - killing a young fan at a nightclub in Slidell, La., where Phipps was performing. To many at the time, it was another story of a gangsta rapper living the life he celebrated in his lyrics. But the new podcast from NPR Music, Louder Than A Riot, finds evidence that Mac Phipps may actually be innocent. NPR's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael pick up the story.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Mac's trial took place across the lake from New Orleans in front of a suburban, all-white jury. The prosecution's argument was simple. Mac called himself the Camouflage Assassin. All you had to do was listen to his music to know he was guilty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDA, MURDA, KILL, KILL")

MAC PHIPPS: (Rapping) Murder, murder, murder, murder, kill, kill. It's real. You cross me wrong. Don't think I forgot you...

CARMICHAEL: Here's part of the prosecutor’s opening argument reenacted from court transcripts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Bruce Dearing) Murder, murder. Kill, kill. Pull the trigger. Put a bullet in your head. Those are some of the lyrics that this defendant chooses to rap when he performs. This is the self-proclaimed Camouflaged Assassin. At the conclusion of this trial, I am going to ask you to rip the camouflage from this assassin and reveal him as the killer that he is.

CARMICHAEL: NPR reached out to prosecutor Bruce Dearing for an interview, but he declined.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Now, there was other evidence. People saw him with a gun, and two eyewitnesses pinned him as the shooter. But Mac has always maintained his innocence. He listened as the prosecutor cherry-picked lines from different songs, even changing his lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

M PHIPPS: For me, it was just like, damn. I done lived my whole life trying to stay out of jail so I can pursue my dreams. And here it is, my dreams were being used against me in court.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Mac hit it big at a young age after winning a citywide talent show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Tell the cops that you about to get stopped. Kick your door in. Illegal search found one rock plus a bag of pot. He brag a lot, told the cops that he had a plot. And he'll be out around 8 o'clock until the cops put him in a cell block and threw away the locks.

CARMICHAEL: But he was basically just a local phenom until he met Master P, who owned the hugely successful hip-hop label No Limit Records.

MASTER P: Mac was probably one of the best artists that ever came to No Limit. He was lyrical. This guy for us was like our down-South Nas.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Mac was a lyrical emcee. And No Limit, it was known for Southern gangsta image. It was an image that sold. And Mac's first album for No Limit, it broke the Top 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHELL SHOCKED (OUTRO)")

M PHIPPS: (Rapping) Tank Dog until they bury me, I cross my heart. Bury me with camo...

MADDEN: But at the time, Mac didn't want his mom, Sheila, to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHEILA PHIPPS: He said, Ma, there's a lot of cursing in there 'cause, you know, he don't like to curse in front of me. I'm like, well, let me hear it anyway, you know? So I heard it. I liked it. You know, I know there was a lot of - it was a little raunchy. I looked at him like, OK. I knew it was all about, you know, him wanting to get paid and help his family out of the struggles that we was having.

MADDEN: Mac moved his family to a nice house and gave them jobs in his production company. His parents even worked at his shows. Things were good for a while.

MASTER P: He probably one of the nicest guys I ever met.

CARMICHAEL: This is Master P again.

MASTER P: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

M PHIPPS: I used to rap about all kinds of stuff. I used to rap about trying to save the world. I used to rap about all types of stuff growing up, you know? And that was actually my favorite type of music. What they would call today conscious hip-hop or whatnot, that's what I was doing before I signed with No Limit. I didn't seem to be able to break through back then with that. But here, I start making a type of music that's selling. And all of a sudden, this music is being used against me in court.

MADDEN: When Mac's jury came back, the verdict was guilty. He got 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

M PHIPPS: I don't think I ever cried like that in my life. It's like I was a kid again. And I went back to the jail when they brought me back, and I was just angry. Man, I was angry with God more than anything. I was angry. I was like, dude, how could you do this to me?

MADDEN: Mac's been behind bars for 20 years now. In the time since, the state's case against him has fallen apart. For one thing, another man originally confessed to the crime, but the prosecution dismissed him. They said he wasn't believable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

M PHIPPS: I just thought that once these people saw a videotape confession, I was going home 'cause I had never heard of anything in my life like that - like, you know, someone confessing to something and a person still staying in prison.

CARMICHAEL: One of the state's two eyewitnesses even recanted. She says now that she didn't see anything, but she was threatened with an obstruction charge if she didn't testify. At the time, she was pregnant, and the DA told her, quote, "you're going to have that baby in prison."

MADDEN: NPR has since talked to new witnesses who tell a very different story than the one presented in court about what happened that night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMIE WILSON: My mom gave me permission to go. And me and my best friend who lived across the street, we put on matching skirts, and we went (laughter).

CARMICHAEL: That's Jamie Wilson. She says there's no way Mac could have been the shooter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILSON: We had just gotten drinks. And the song was ending. We had missed most of it trying to get a drink. I remember we were complaining about that. And Mac started to come off of the stage. And then it's like, seconds later, it felt like - or maybe a minute or two - the shots rang out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILSON: I remember he was still right there, like, as this is going on. And so he kind of, like, get down, you know? And I ducked. And, you know, I was freaking out on the floor. I'm like, oh, my God. Are we going to die at the concert? Like, oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. And then as Mac was getting up, he drew a weapon and was like, where's my mom? Where's mama? He was asking, where's his mama?

MADDEN: The next day, Jamie went to the police with this story, but she says the detective did anything but put her at ease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILSON: I've never felt so small before in my life ever. I think he called me a liar at one point. I know he used liar or you lied or something to that nature. It's like he was upset that we existed, that there was someone that is saying no to everything that they're saying. You know, it's like you can tell that they just - they didn't want to listen. They just didn't want to hear.

MADDEN: Mac's many appeals have never worked. His last hope now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.

CARMICHAEL: That's because Mac's jury was split 10 to 2 on his guilt. See, Louisiana allowed non-unanimous convictions at the time, a century-old racist law written specifically to weaken the impact of Black jurors. But this year, the Supreme Court actually ruled that that was unconstitutional. But the ruling isn't necessarily retroactive. So while his lawyers work to throw out his conviction, Mac's family waits.

S PHIPPS: I've heard people say this before, but it's true. It's 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 he's out, especially someone that's in there for a crime he didn't commit.

CARMICHAEL: But Mac's case is hardly isolated. Prosecutors have used rap lyrics against defendants in hundreds of cases all over the country. Experts say the true number is actually hard to quantify. No other genre gets misused this way.

MADDEN: But one thing we do know - putting hip-hop lyrics on trial, that's a tactic that works.

KELLY: That is Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, hosts of the Louder Than A Riot podcast from NPR Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.