What do you do when a member of your family is locked up for a crime you are sure he didn’t commit? Sheila Phipps paints.
“That’s the guy that was exonerated. I painted the feet of him walking out of prison after 25 years.”
Sheila Phipps points to a picture of Earl Truvia. It’s part of her Innocence Exhibition series, a collection of paintings — mostly portraits – of wrongfully incarcerated men.
“This young man here, Warren Scott, was a musician, and I think he’s been in prison —I want to say 16, 17 years, or something like that,” says Sheila, pointing to a portrait. “Raw umber and burnt sienna is the color of the skin tone.
“What happened is they photograph their picture in jail, while they’re in jail, and they give me the photograph and I paint from the photograph.
“I met his parents. His parents was — I don’t know — that’s their only child. And I remember his mother would come and she just looked so broken. She and her husband, they’re always there together — and you know, she hardly hold her head up. It just looked like it was, to me, it was a struggle for them to walk in this place. They’re both professional people, I’m sure they raised their son, you know, I mean he was in college and all that. And for this to happen, it just broke their heart. And they still working on his case.”
“We have to talk about one more portrait,” I tell her.
“Ok. My son’s? Yeah, that’s my son, Mac,” says Sheila, pointing. “I started this project because of him.”
Sheila’s son is McKinley Phipps. Back in the late 1990’s, McKinley, whose stage name is Mac, was a rising music star signed by Master P to No Limit Records, alongside rap luminaries like Snoop Dogg and Mystikal.
On February 21, 2000, Phipps was performing in a club in Slidell when a man in the audience was shot and killed. Phipps was arrested hours after the killing. The lyrics from his song, Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill, were used at trial to prove Phipps was a hard-core gangster, but they came from a chant Phipps’ father taught him — one he’d learned while serving in the Army in Vietnam.
As a first offender with no criminal record, Phipps was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was 22 at the time.
His mother, Sheila Phipps, was at the club that night. She knew he didn’t do it.
“One day I was just praying,” recalls Sheila. “I was like: Lord, there’s got to be something I can do, you know, to bring awareness to what’s going on with these guys. I was thinking, I’m an artist. Well maybe I can just paint a portrait, because you know, I’ve always liked to do portraits, well maybe I can paint a portrait of my son, and maybe do exhibits and talk about his story. But as I’m saying this, I’m like: why am I stopping with my son? I might as well just do a series of other guys. Because, see Mac is a well-known rapper, but I just didn’t want it to be just him.
“I just wanted to show there are a lot more other people in the same situation, because before this happened, I never would have thought— well, I guess it’s hard for me to imagine that these things is going on, you know, until it happened to my son. It really opened my eyes. It really, really opened my eyes. I ain’t going to lie to you.”
Sheila paints in a small room in the back of her house in Meraux, which her husband bought after the storm. Her youngest, of her six children, still lives with them. He’s a trombone player. Both Sheila and her husband are artists.
“I kinda went away from it when I got married,” recalls Sheila. “I got married right out of high school. I was like 19, and then I started raising children immediately. Anyway, so when the kids was running around I had to get back to do something to ease my mind. So my husband was working all the time, and I’m like, you know what? I gotta paint so I can focus. That’s the only I cope with it. It was rough.”
I spot a turntable in the corner. “You listen to records while you paint?”
“Oh yes, indeed. I have to. I have to.”
“So what’s on the turntable?”
“I don’t know what I got up there? What’s his name over here? I like him too.”
“Elton John. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” sings Sheila. “I like that one — Rocket Man. I like Rocket Man. I like them all!”
And that rubbed off on her son, even though he was known as a rapper.
Vernon Cook served with Phipps at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. They were in the prison’s Music Association together.
“He did play Rocket Man,” recalls Cook. “He actually would try to sing it. Now, he’s not a very good singer. The guys that look up to him accidentally walk into the band room, and they want to get on the mic and they want to rap and he’s in there playing Rocket Man, Elton John, and he’s looking at the young guys that just come into the prison system and said, ‘You brothers know what that is?’ And they’re like, ‘Hell no. What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a classic. That’s Elton John, buddy.’
“Mac is… the warden called him Clark Kent,” continues Cook, “because he’s very much like a nerd, but when he gets on that stage he turns into a great, great MC. Very lyrical, very, very, very smart.”
“This is one of the reasons why my children all grew up playing music,” says Sheila Phipps, “because they would tell people in interviews: 'I remember Mama playing music all day.'”
It’s difficult to calculate exactly how many innocent people are currently behind bars in the United States. One study, by the National Registry of Exonerations, found that when it comes to imprisoning people that are later proven innocent, Louisiana is in the lead, just after Illinois.
“Innocent people get convicted in the criminal justice system,” says Emily Maw, who heads the Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents people serving life sentences in Louisiana and Mississippi. McKinley Phipps is not one of their clients. “When we say innocent, we mean somebody who did not do the crime they are in prison for. Somebody else did the crime that they are in prison for.”
Last year, the St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed, whose office prosecuted McKinley Phipps’ case, decided not to seek re-election and was later indicted on corruption charges unrelated to Phipps' case. According to a Huffington Post investigation, since Reed left office, five witnesses for the prosecution have come forward saying they testified against Phipps under pressure from the DA's office – pressure that often included threats of jail time. Investigative journalists from the Medill Justice Project find this significant, since Phipps’ conviction by an all-white jury relied solely on eyewitnesses. No forensic evidence linked him to the crime.
Phipps' lawyers have taken affidavits from these witnesses and are looking to get his conviction overturned, but St. Tammany’s current DA, Warren Montgomery, says no one has yet presented any new evidence to the District Attorney's office, nor to the courts.
Clearly, Sheila and her family believe in McKinley Phipps' innocence, but innocence can be hard to demonstrate. The system often seems to work on a presumption of guilt, not the other way around.
Emily Maw, from the Innocence Project, believes the number of innocent people currently serving time is much higher than what we now understand.
“So the advent of DNA testing in the last 20 years, people have increasingly realized that some people who are objectively innocent -- completely, scientifically proven to have not been the person who did the crime -- have been in prison,” says Maw. “But DNA cases represent the tip of the iceberg. They are really what I would call the canary in the coalmine.”
“Before my son went to jail,” says Sheila Phipps, “I used to see people be on television, fighting, saying: this person didn’t do it and this person is innocent. And you know you snubbed them or you dismissed them and like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of people that deserve to be in prison. There are a lot of criminals out here. But there are a lot of innocent people that’s in jail.”
Sheila’s received letters from men serving time who write to thank her for her project. In the letters, many openly admit to having committed the crimes they are accused of, but they appreciate her bringing awareness to fellow inmates whom they know to be innocent. Sheila says these letters encourage her.
“I’m a tell you — a lot of times I feel like I’m not doing enough, I guess. I do get discouraged and depressed a lot about the whole situation,” confesses Sheila Phipps, “but when I get a letter like that it encourages me. Puts a smile on my face, tear in my eye. It comes at the right time.”
Producer's update, March 25, 2016:
After this Unprisoned story aired, McKinley Phipps' lawyer Buddy Spell alerted us to what he believed were discrepancies between what he had discussed with St. Tammany District Attorney Warren Montgomery and what Montgomery had told us for the story. We contacted the two men to try and understand their differing accounts.
Montgomery sticks by his position that, despite receiving what he calls "a letter full of allegations" about the case last year, he hasn't seen anything that merited a new look at Phipps' innocence. "It’s time for Mr. Spell to bring whatever evidence he has to the court," Montgomery said in a written statement.
But Spell, who started on the case eight months ago, contends that he delivered such evidence, contained in a letter hand-delivered to the DA last August, and has had two formal meetings and other informal conversations with Montgomery’s Chief of Trials, Colin Sims, about re-sentencing Phipps to time served, allowing him to be released. Only on March 16, 2016 the day the Unprisoned story ran, did Montgomery's office request a formal affidavit or statement, Spell said. Until then, Spell said, "We really thought that with all the things going on in the case that we would be able to file jointly for release.” Now that those negotiations have been very publicly scuttled, Spell says he now has no other choice but to pursue Phipp’s case through normal judicial proceedings.
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.