JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A state appeals
court Wednesday upheld the life sentence in a teen-ager who was 14
when he fatally beat and stabbed 8-year-old Maddie Clifton.
The Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland
says that life in prison is not cruel or unusual punishment, given
the brutality of the crime.
Joshua Phillips told investigators that he killed
the girl in 1998 after she was hurt playing baseball with him. He
said he was afraid of getting in trouble because his father had told
him he was too old to play with her.
Phillips' trial was in Bartow due to intense
media coverage of crime and strong community feelings would have
made it difficult to get an impartial jury in Jacksonville.
A medical examiner testified in the 1999 trial
that the girl's head had been bashed and that she had stab wounds in
her neck. The autopsy showed that she was still alive when Phillips
shoved her underneath his waterbed mattress.
"The court's task is only to measure the penalty
imposed against constitutional standards," Judge Casanueva wrote in
the court's ruling. "Joshua Phillip's sentence for this crime cannot
be said to be unusual punishment."
State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who personally
prosecuted the case, released a statement affirming the appeals
court's ruling, noting it was a unanimous decision of the three-judge
"It's terrible to see a 14-year-old sentenced to
life in prison with no possibility of parole," Shorstein said. "On
the other hand, it's an unbelievably tragic murder of a wonderful
Assistant State Attorney Angela Corey told
Channel 4 that Phillips' lawyer could appeal to the Florida Supreme
Court, perhaps claiming that he had ineffective counsel at trial.
Contacted by Channel 4, Phillip's current
attorney had no comment on Wednesday's ruling.
The Florida Department of Corrections said that
Phillips, who is currently housed at Marion Correctional Institution
near Ocala, will probably join the adult prison when he turns 18
The Search For
June 12, 2000
Josh Phillips seemed to be a typical
14-year-old living with his parents on a quiet street in
Jacksonville, Fla. He had a C average in school. He liked to play
with other kids in the neighborhood. One of those kids was his
across-the-street neighbor, 8-year-old Maddie Clifton.
At around 5 p.m. on Nov. 3, 1998, Maddie, a
tomboy who especially liked basketball, went out to play. She never
At 6:30 p.m., her mother, Sheila, called Maddie
and her sister Jessie in for dinner.
Jessie came in and said she hadn't been with her
younger sister and didn't know where she was. Soon after, Sheila
called 911 to report Maddie missing. "It was like she shut the
door and just, poof, vanished off the face of the earth," says
her father Steve, a foreman at a local metal shop.
That night the Cliftons and their neighbors
searched with flashlights. Among those who searched were Josh
Phillips and his parents, Steve and Missy. Over the next seven days,
thousands of volunteers searched frantically, casting their net
wider and wider for the little girl.
On the morning of the seventh day, Josh Phillips'
mother noticed some water on the floor at the end of her son's
waterbed. She thought that leaking water might be causing the
strange smell in her son's room.
So she pulled apart the baseboard to check under
his bed. She saw a foot. She ran out of the front door to a police
officer and led him to her son's room.
"I just pointed to where they needed to look.
I couldn't even go in," she remembers.
Across the street the Cliftons noticed police
putting up crime scene tape around the Phillips' house. A few
minutes later detectives knocked on their door.
The Phillips met their son at the police station,
where he had been brought from school for questioning. In the
interrogation room, Steve Phillips told his son to tell the
detectives the truth.
With his father by his side, Josh described what
he claims happened the day Maddie was killed. Apparently Maddie came
over to his house and wanted to play. He told her he had to do his
chores, but she persisted.
Josh said he agreed, but told her that he could
only play for a few minutes, because his father would be getting
home soon and would be angry if Maddie were there.
Josh told police he and Maddie were playing
baseball in his backyard around 5:15 p.m. At one point she threw the
ball, he hit it, and it hit her in the head, causing a big gash, he
said. Maddie then fell down and started to scream.
He then panicked, picked her up and took her into
the house, Josh said. He carried her into his room and put her on
the floor, he said. When she started making noise, he became even
He didn't want to get in trouble. "When we're
not at home, he's not allowed to go out and play," his father
says. "He's not allowed to let anybody in."
Josh said that he panicked and hit Maddie once or
twice in the head to silence her. Then, using his pcketknife, he
stabbed her twice in the throat.
Later, Josh told police, he went back to his
bedroom because he heard his playmate moaning. He then stabbed her
again. "That's not the way he is; he's never hurt anybody,"
says Missy Phillips.
After confessing to the murder, Josh was arrested
and taken into custody. Four days after Josh was arrested, Maddie
Behind The Facade
June 12, 2000
In the aftermath of the crime, the
Cliftons mourned for their daughter. In a different way, the
Phillips mourned for their son.
They had tried to raise their son to be a good
person, and now he was accused of murder. His parents said that Josh
seemed completely normal. His half brother Dan describes Josh as a "happy kid."
"He likes to read; he likes to work on the
computers; and he likes to spend time with us," says Missy
"There's very few times that we ever did
anything that Josh didn't do with us," she says.
Even Jessie Clifton, Maddie's older sister, says
that Josh seemed to be a "pretty decent kid." Father Steve
Clifton says that Maddie liked to play with Josh. But he also calls
Josh a "monster" for killing his daughter.
At A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology,
where Josh was a ninth grader, he was not a problem student. His
teachers say he didn't stick out at all. "I don't know the
monster; I knew the silly little boy in my class," says one,
She says that he wasn't a loner and that other
kids liked him. "He was funny," Harris says. "He made them
Despite this, Josh was tried as an adult for
Maddie's murder, a fact that makes his father angry.
"To put any 14-year-old, not only mine, but
any 14-year-old in prison for the rest of their lives, that's just
ludicrous," he said before the trial.
Steve and Missy Phillips hoped that Josh would be
convicted of second-degree murder, or even manslaughter. If
convicted of those charges, he would be eligible for release while
To help bolster Josh's case, his attorney hired a
psychologist to see if Josh had any hidden problems. Josh told the
psychologist, Tom Bowery, that he had not been not anxious or
depressed at all. He also said that he loved his parents.
"This is not what I would've seen as the
typical kind of sociopathic, wanting to kill, wanting to maim,
deriving-pleasure-from-the-pain-of-others kind of kid," says
Bowery. "I don't think that's true at all."
Josh says that he tried his best to avoid
thinking about the murder. "That's one of the reasons I like to
read because if I'm reading I can't think about anything else."
Josh did say, however, that he was afraid of his
father. "He was very terrified of his father whenever two kinds
of circumstances arose," Bowery says of Josh.
"Whenever he was afraid that he had done
something wrong or whenever his father was angry at anyone,"
"If I did something wrong," Josh says,
"he always had kind of a short temper, and I sometimes I never knew
what he'd do." Josh says that fear caused him to panic when he
hit Maddie with the ball.
"Looking back on it now, there's some things I
did that probably would have handled differently," Steve
Phillips says. "I don't know if that would've made any difference."
Another exert, a neurologist hired by Josh's
attorney, found that Josh has "bilateral frontal lobe lesions,"
which can impair judgment as well as cause panic. But the judge
didn't allow this evidence to be presented in court.
In July, Josh's trial began. There was a great
deal of evidence against him: the baseball bat, the knife and Josh's
tennis shoes, stained with Maddie's blood. But the most damning
piece was Josh's confession.
In a surprise move criticized by many experienced
defense lawyers, Josh's lawyer, Richard Nichols, decided not to call
any witnesses. The entire defense was a closing argument.
The jury returned after only two hours with a
verdict of first-degree murder, which means that Josh will spend the
rest of his life in prison. His family plans to appeal.
There is one more piece of this puzzle, which may
shed a little light on the crime. According to prosecutor Harry
Shorstein, in the half hour preceding the murder, Josh was looking
at violent pornographic Web sites on his home computer.
Shorstein believes that this evidence, ruled
inadmissible and not presented at the trial, points to an
He believes that the photos Josh looked at could
have triggered his violence - especially if Josh really did have a
brain lesion impairing his judgment.
The Cliftons agree: "I believe had he not
access to the materials he had, that Maddie would be sitting here
right now," Sheila Clifton says.
Steve Phillips places some of the responsibility
for Maddie's murder on the victim herself. If she hadn't come over,
he says, none of this would have happened.
Neither family has spoken to the other since the
crime. Neither plans to move. "As hard as it is to stay here, it
would be just as hard to leave Maddie's house behind," says
What would Josh say to Maddie's parents if he
could speak to them?
"I'd beg for forgiveness," he says. "That's
all I could say; there's nothing else I could say. I guess I'd say
I'm sorry but that wouldn't be enough."
Phillips sentenced to life
By Kathleen Sweeney -
Times-Union staff writer -
Saturday, August 21, 1999
BARTOW - They may only have
memories of the star basketball player with the Kool-Aid smile and
big brown eyes, but the family of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl
finally saw some justice yesterday when her killer was sentenced to
life in prison.
''To Joshua Phillips we have
but one thing to say. How dare you? How dare you take Maddie from us
for no reason? She was a beautiful gift from God to us all, and your
friend, and you brutally murdered her,'' Steve Clifton said, turning
to his 15-year-old neighbor awaiting his sentence in court. ''May
God rest your soul.''
Circuit Judge Charles
Arnold's life sentence was mandatory after Phillips was convicted
last month of the first-degree murder of Maddie Clifton, the
Lakewood girl whose disappearance and slaying in November sparked a
citywide outpouring of grief. She was beaten and stabbed, and her
body was found under Joshua Phillips' waterbed a week later.
Richard Nichols, Phillips'
attorney, said he plans to appeal. He has 30 days.
Before Phillips was
sentenced, the Cliftons told him for the first time how the heinous
crime shattered their lives.
But first, Phillips' family
told the Cliftons they were sorry for their loss, and for the first
time Joshua Phillips expressed some remorse.
In the small Polk County courtroom, the Cliftons
listened to their neighbors talk of a young man who they said has
never shown a hint of violence - a young man they called loving,
caring and generous.
Dan Phillips, Joshua's older brother, said he
sees Maddie's image when he looks at his own 6-year-old girl.
''I have thought of your daughter very often,''
he told the Cliftons. ''Then, I think of my little brother. . . .
When I look at him, I still see a baby.''
He said Joshua Phillips, whose lips quivered as
his brother spoke, may not have shown much remorse publicly but wept
''I know in my heart my brother is remorseful for
what has happened, but he's still a boy,'' Dan Phillips said.
Phillips' mother then said she believes her son's
action came from bilateral frontal lobe lesions, a condition that
can cause a person to panic or stifle impulses and can impair
someone's capacity to judge future consequences.
''I cannot undo what is done and there is not a
day that passes that I don't think about Maddie and her family that
loves her,'' she said. ''I'm sorry for their grief, but I cannot
repair their heartbreak any more than I can repair our own.''
With those expressions of remorse, Phillips'
other brother, Ben, told the court Maddie's uncle was once convicted
of a crime and he was allowed to serve his time and resume his life.
Then, without specifics, the defendant's father
accused Jacksonville police of perjury and said State Attorney Harry
Shorstein and his chief assistant, Jay Plotkin, pursued a first-degree
murder conviction to further their own political careers.
''For the state to prosecute a 14-year-old for
first-degree murder is ludicrous and obscene,'' Steve Phillips said.
''Mr. Shorstein and Mr. Plotkin should be ashamed of themselves in
this manner. Their actions were carefully plotted for the press and
to further their own political gains.''
Shorstein later said there was no doubt Phillips
should be tried as an adult, and the judge agreed.
''This hearing brings a sad
end to one of the most tragic proceedings of one of the most heinous
crimes in our city's history,'' Shorstein said. ''Everyone has
suffered, everyone has lost. Only the system of justice has
The Cliftons then spoke for the dancer,
basketball player, daughter and sister who's voice will never be
heard, whose dream of becoming a drummer or eye doctor ended with
Maddie's mother, Sheila, said no one will ever
understand how her daughter's murder has impacted her life. It has
left her devastated, shattered, heartbroken and permanently scarred,
''I will never see Maddie play again,'' Sheila
Clifton said. ''I will never see Maddie fulfill her dreams.''
Maddie's sister, 12-year-old Jessica, has stayed
strong throughout the search, court proceedings and media circus and
said she's been able to help her parents through the hardest time in
She said she misses her ''sissy'' and knows when
Maddie is in her room watching over her. For that, she is thankful.
But she doesn't understand why the neighbor Maddie considered a best
friend harmed her sister.
''I don't know why God wanted Maddie to leave so
early in her life, but we all have to learn to accept that,'' she
Before sentencing Phillips, Arnold denied Nichols'
request for a new trial and a motion to sentence Phillips as a
juvenile. He also upheld his decision not to allow a doctor's
deposition in lieu of testimony.
But he praised Nichols, who has been criticized
for not presenting a defense at trial. The judge called his defense
admirable and said those criticizing him ''didn't know what they
were talking about.''
Finally, Arnold told Phillips what he thought of
his ''monstrous'' acts.
''I do not perceive you to be a child. Your
monstrous act in causing the death of Maddie Clifton made you an
adult. . . . I'm certain that on Judgment Day, you, Joshua Earl
Phillips, will be given a far harsher sentence than I can impose,''
Arnold said, quoting Christ's words from Luke 17: ''It would be
better if a millstone were hung around your neck and that you were
thrown into sea than to cause harm to a child.''
Phillips and his family didn't say a word before
leaving the courtroom.
But outside the courthouse, photographers
surrounded the family.
''Get out of my way,'' Steve Phillips yelled
before shoving a Tampa videographer. ''You're blocking my way.''
As for the Cliftons, they said they want to move
on with their lives.
Though Phillips will most likely spend the
remainder of his life behind bars, Sheila Clifton said it's not much
''I think Maddie is watching over all of us,''
she said. Now she plans to ''remember Maddie and what a pleasure she
was to be around.''
Jury finds Phillips guilty of first-degree
Wednesday, July 8th 1999 -
Joshua Phillips was found guilty Thursday of
fatally bludgeoning and stabbing 8-year-old Maddie Clifton, and then
stuffing her body into the frame of his waterbed.
A jury deliberated for more than two hours before
convicting the 15-year-old Phillips of first-degree murder in the
death of Maddie, who lived across the street from him in a
Joshua showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
Maddie's parents, Steve and Sheila Clifton, blinked back tears.
"This is a day of justice for Maddie," Sheila
Clifton said outside the courthouse, clutching a bracelet with
Maddie's name on it. "That piece of my heart that's gone is waiting
on the other side, waiting on the other side for us."
Joshua's family and his attorney left the
courthouse without talking to reporters.
Joshua, who was 14 at the time of the murder, was
tried as an adult. Since he is under 16, he cannot be sentenced to
death in Florida. He could be sent to prison for life with no chance
of parole. Circuit Judge Charles Arnold set a sentencing date for
August 12th in Jacksonville.
Maddie disappeared Nov. 3, 1998, prompting a
search of her Jacksonville neighborhood involving hundreds of
volunteers. Her decomposing body was found seven days later stuffed
in the frame of Joshua's water bed across the street from her home.
His attorney argued earlier Thursday that
Maddie's murder wasn't premeditated and urged jurors to convict
Joshua of manslaughter.
"We're not here to act out of some form of
vengeance," defense attorney Richard Nichols said. "We're not here
to act as a bunch of well-dressed vigilantes."
Detectives testified during the trial that Joshua
confessed to the murder.
According to Joshua's story, he accidentally hit
Maddie in the eye with a baseball while they were playing in his
backyard. She began screaming.
Joshua told detectives that he panicked because
he feared being punished by his father and dragged Maddie into his
bedroom. When she wouldn't stop screaming, he hit her in the head
with a bat. When she kept moaning, Joshua grabbed a knife and
stabbed her in the neck.
He then stuffed her body into the frame of his
water bed and went to wash up. After Joshua heard her moaning, he
pulled her from the bed and stabbed her again until she stopped
breathing, according to Joshua's story.
An autopsy showed Maddie was beaten over the head
and stabbed at least nine times in the chest and twice in the neck,
he said. "The evidence shows us there was an accident that
deteriorated into panic and then murder," Nichols said.
State Attorney Harry Shorstein said Joshua's
story was unlikely and suggested that the murder may have been
sexually motivated. There was no blood on the ball, no blood in the
yard and no dirt on Maddie's body or clothes.
He said Maddie's pants and underpants were
removed from her body and Joshua had previously talked to Maddie and
her sister about sex.
His trial was moved 200 miles from Jacksonville
to the central Florida town of Bartow, about 40 miles southeast of
Tampa, because of intense news coverage.
The trial only lasted two days because Joshua's
lawyers presented no witnesses or evidence. "This case was open and
shut," Shorstein said, adding there was no clear motive for Maddie's
death. "There aren't any great explanations."