When much of Duval County was first introduced to Joshua Phillips, he was a frightened, wiry, teenager who beat and stabbed 8-year-old Maddie Clifton when she would not stop crying after being hit by a baseball. He then entombed her lifeless body beneath his waterbed as the region searched tirelessly for any signs of the little girl who seemingly vanished from her Southside neighborhood one day in 1998.
Phillips was all of 14 years old at the time.
His mother made the gruesome discovery after helping pass out fliers of the missing girl who lived across the street. Maddie’s whereabouts were unknown to all but Joshua Phillips for a solid week in November 1998. Throngs of officers and volunteers searched for her each day.
Maddie’s death devastated the community, tormented the Clifton and Phillips families and sent a boy off to prison presumably for life.
Phillips will be back in court starting Monday for the possibility of getting a new prison sentence. He is now 33.
Florida’s tough stance on crime at any cost has been challenged repeatedly.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said it was unconstitutional to automatically impose life sentences without a chance for parole on juveniles. To do so was cruel and unusual punishment.
Statewide some 600 inmates’ life sentences have the potential to be changed. For the region that consists of Duval, Nassau and Clay counties, the number is 80.
Locally, at least six cases has been heard recently, according to a list provided by the State Attorney’s Office.
Of those, two men were released from prison because a judge decided they served a long enough sentences; one person was re-sentenced to life; one was re-sentenced to 45 years; and one case’s outcome could not be verified Friday. A sixth, that of a 17-year-old who killed a 23-year-old Riverside nursing student by stabbing her 31 times, was heard Friday. That killer, Kimothy Simmons, will be sentenced Aug. 31.
While Simmons’ case took a little more than three hours, the Phillips case is expected to take three to four days.
“I’ll just be glad when it is all over,” said Sheila Delongis, Maddie’s mother as she broke down and began to cry. “That’s all I really have to say about it. I’ll be glad when its over and I can have peace of mind.”
During a re-sentencing hearing, the guilt phase is already established but the judge determines if the term of life behind bars is justified after reviewing the original case and taking into account the defendant’s age and circumstances. That includes the nature of the offense; the effect of the crime on the victim’s family and community; the defendant’s mental and emotional health at the time; the defendant’s background including family life and environment; and the possibility of rehabilitating the defendant.
In 2008 the 10-year-anniversary of Maddie’s disappearance and death, a reporter with the Times-Union sat down and talked with Phillips in prison.
He seemed conflicted when asked what a fair sentence would be.
“I really don’t know if I deserve it or not,” he said. “But I know I want a second chance. Maybe I deserve to die in prison.”
Tom Fallis, an attorney who is handling the re-sentencing hearing, did not return phone calls seeking comment. He previously told the Times-Union that to sentence a “14-year-old to life is barbaric.”
Phillips still could get life but faces a minimum of 40 years. However, state law requires that all juvenile convictions involving a death be brought back to the judge for a review after 25 years. That means in six years Phillips will come back to court for a review regardless of what happens with his new sentence. At that point the judge could release him if it’s determined he’s served enough time.
Psychologist: Interviewed Phillips on 5/2, found him competent. Tested "mental status". "IQ is 115, which is at the 84th percentile" @FCN2go— Shelby Danielsen (@NewsShelby) August 7, 2017
Psychologist: "His IQ is above average"— Shelby Danielsen (@NewsShelby) August 7, 2017
"Showed no signs of PTSD"
"He has the ability to understand what provokes anger"@FCN2go
Psychologist: "thoughtful & careful decision making" not fully developed in juveniles, says brain development not complete until age 25— Shelby Danielsen (@NewsShelby) August 7, 2017
Defense: This is the Josh Phillips of 2017. This isn't the Josh Phillips of 1998?— Shelby Danielsen (@NewsShelby) August 7, 2017
Psychologist: Well I didn't interview him in 1998.@FCN2go