"We're not here to act out some sort of vengeance."
-Defense Attorney Richard Nichols during his closing statement to the Jury
It was the 3rd of November 1998. A Tuesday. Eight year old Maddie Clifton went out to play in the suburban Jacksonville neighborhood where she lived in Florida, United States with her father Steve, mother Sheila and eleven year old sister Jessie. It was election day. Maddie had been at school that day and after school, she went straight home and arrived back at the house around 4.30pm. At home, Maddie practiced her piano until her mother Sheila returned home from voting.
As soon as Sheila was home, Maddie ran outside to play. She knew she had a short period of time to play before she needed to be home again for dinner. A lot of children played out on the street. That afternoon, Maddie went to her sixteen year old neighbor's yard to hit some golf balls. She returned to her own yard to get more golf balls.
Sheila called Maddie and Jessie in for dinner at 6.20pm. There was no sign of Maddie in the yard so Sheila asked her neighbors if they saw her. They helped to look for her but she didn't appear to be anywhere on the street. Sheila called 911 to report her daughter missing at 6.33pm.
The search for Maddie intensified and hundreds of volunteers looked for her but she was not found. In the days that followed, thousands of flyers were handed out, Maddie's parents appealed for information, the media covered the disappearance extensively and police questioned neighbors, some were questioned multiple times.
Seven days after Maddie disappeared, on the 10th of November, the street was still full of police officers and the media. Steve and Sheila had just finished taping an interview with a national news morning program when one of their neighbors ran across the street calling out for the police. The neighbor, Missy Phillips, told police that she found Maddie's body.
Missy found Maddie’s body inside the frame of her fourteen year old son's waterbed.
Maddie had been beaten and stabbed.
Missy's son, Joshua Phillips, was in school when Maddie's body was found. Police went to his classroom to arrest him. He confessed that he killed Maddie.
Joshua was charged with first degree murder. Despite his age, it was determined he would be tried as an adult due to the heinous nature of the crime.
At that time, a conviction of first degree murder was an automatic life sentence due to his age. He was too young to receive the death penalty. It was the first time Joshua had been in trouble. He normally spent time on his computer and with his dog. Despite his confession, Joshua pleaded not guilty to first degree murder.
Prior to the Trial, there was huge interest in the case, so much so that the Trial was moved outside of Jacksonville to ensure Joshua would receive a fair Trial.
It was the Prosecution's case that Joshua murdered Maddie. During the opening statements, the Prosecutor told the Jury that Joshua was guilty of a "brutal first degree murder of an eight year old child." The Prosecutor, Harry Shorstein, told the Court that it was the Prosecution's case that Joshua was guilty of "three vicious attacks".
He argued that the evidence would show Joshua hit Maddie with a baseball bat, cut her throat, then repeatedly stabbed her before hiding her body under his waterbed. The Prosecutor told the Court that the incident began when the two were playing ball in Joshua's back yard, and a ball Joshua hit struck Maddie in the eye. The Prosecutor said:
"She was yelling and screaming, and he didn't know what to do."
It was the Prosecution's case that Joshua dragged Maddie into his bedroom, hit her with a baseball bat to keep her quiet, and cut her throat and stabbed her when she moaned. The Prosecutor told the Jury that after he killed Maddie, Joshua slept on the waterbed with her body beneath it. He sealed the edges with tape and used incense in an attempt to disguise the odor of her decaying body. He went to great lengths to conceal what he had done.
The Jury were told that Maddie went outside to play on the 3rd of November and never returned to her home. People on the street saw her playing. She was seen playing in the yard of her sixteen year old neighbor . That neighbor's grandmother saw Maddie in her driveway and saw Joshua “creeping up” on Maddie. She watched them for a few minutes but then thought it was just two children playing so she went back inside.
The Court heard that after Maddie went missing, Joshua took part in the searches and helped look for her despite knowing that he had killed her and hid her body in the base of his waterbed. He slept on that waterbed for the seven days after she went missing until Missy found her. People from the neighborhood who helped search for Maddie after she went missing described Joshua as acting normal. Some said that it looked as if he had just taken a shower before the search began the first night that she was reported missing.
The Prosecution told the Court that police spoke to Joshua the day after Maddie went missing. He told them that he saw her the day before. He told police that he didn't play with her as he wasn't supposed to due to their age difference.
Police searched the Phillips' storage shed and car after Joshua's father arrived home, but they found nothing.
Police spoke to Joshua again a few days later when he was at home in his bedroom. He was sitting on his bed as police asked him questions. He denied knowing what happened to Maddie. The Court heard that Missy found Maddie's body on the 10th of November when she was cleaning Joshua's bedroom and thought his waterbed was leaking. That was when she found Maddie and she flagged down a police officer who was across the street.
Police went into Joshua's bedroom and when they opened the door, they immediately noticed a strong odor emanating from the bedroom. When they looked inside, they saw two small feet with white socks sticking out from the bottom of Joshua's waterbed. Maddie was partially clothed. Her shirt was pulled up and her panties were underneath her.
A search of Joshua's bedroom uncovered several types of air fresheners, rolls of tape, a baseball bat hidden behind a dresser, and a Leatherman knife tool. The Court heard that the baseball bat and the knife were the murder weapons.
The Detectives involved in the investigation testified at the Trial. They testified that when they arrested Joshua, he confessed to the killing. The Court heard that Joshua told the Detectives that he accidentally hit Maddie in the eye with a ball while they were playing in his backyard.The ball struck her near the left eye and as it hit her very hard, she was bleeding and Maddie was crying and in distress.
Joshua told Detectives that Maddie wouldn't stop screaming so he dragged her into his bedroom. When she wouldn't stop screaming, he hit her in the head with a bat. He told the Detectives that he struck Maddie once or twice in the head with the baseball bat so that she would be quiet before his father returned home. Joshua claimed that at that point, Maddie began to moan more loudly so he took his knife and cut her throat.
According to Joshua, he then stuffed her body into the frame of his waterbed. When he went to wash up, he could still hear Maddie moaning. He went back to his bedroom and pulled Maddie from under the bed and stabbed her in the lungs so that she would stop breathing.
Joshua claimed that Maddie was partially clothed when she was found as her shorts and underwear came off when he dragged her into his bedroom. He claimed he killed her because he was afraid of his father who had a violent temper. Joshua knew he was not permitted to play with other children when his parents weren't home and he believed his father would be mad if he found out Maddie was at their house.
The State's Medical Expert testified and told the Court that Maddie had suffered three separate attacks.
The Court heard that Maddie was struck three times on her forehead and top of her head. Those wounds would have been fatal about thirty minutes after infliction.
The Court heard that Maddie's neck wounds perforated her windpipe, causing her to bleed to death or drown in her own blood. The Medical Examiner testified that nine stab wounds were found on Maddie's chest and abdomen. The Medical Examiner told the Court that two stab wounds were inflicted when she was already dead. The Court heard that Maddie's hand clutched a bracket from the waterbed frame, which indicated that she was still alive when Josh shoved her underneath initially.
The Autopsy confirmed that Maddie was beaten over the head and stabbed at least nine times in the chest and twice in the neck.
The Prosecutor, Harry Shorstein, told the Jury that Joshua's version of events was unlikely. He told the Jury that the murder may have been sexually motivated. He reminded the Jury that there was no blood on the ball, no blood in the yard and no dirt on Maddie's body or clothes. It was the Prosecution's case that Maddie's clothing did not come off when her body was dragged but instead Maddie's pants and underpants were removed from her body. The Court heard that Joshua had previously talked to Maddie and her sister about sex.
The Prosecution rested their case.
The Defense then immediately sought a motion to drop the murder charge and another motion for a directed verdict of acquittal. The Judge refused the request.
The Defense called no witnesses and instead they focused on the Attorney's address to the Jury. The Defense Attorney, Richard Nichols, told the Jury that Joshua may have committed a "monstrous act" but he is "not a monster":
"Because of an act that began as an accident and deteriorated through panic that bordered on madness, he engaged in a monstrous act."
The Defense told the Jury that there was no doubt that Joshua killed Maddie. That was not in dispute. What was in dispute was what he was guilty of. The Defense argued that Joshua was not guilty of premeditated murder:
"The State wants to tell you that Joshua Phillips was a monster, but the evidence shows he is not a monster. Regardless of your verdict, Mr. Phillips has essentially forfeited his life."
The Defense asked the Jury to consider finding him guilty of a lessor charge such as manslaughter based on their argument that the killing was not premeditated and that Joshua had no plans to kill Maddie that day. Instead he panicked when presented with a situation that was unfolding that he was worried about. He was worried about his father arriving home at the same time Maddie was crying and in their yard:
"It had to be a product of panic. What we certainly have is manslaughter under the law."
The Jury deliberated for two hours and found Joshua guilty of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
After Joshua's sentence, the Prosecutor,Harry Shorstein, revealed to 48 Hours that there was evidence in the case that was ruled inadmissible and as such it could not be presented at the Trial and the Jury could not hear about it. In the half hour preceding Maddie's murder, Harry told 48 Hours that Joshua was looking at violent pornographic websites on his home computer. It was argued that that may have provided some sort of explanation or motive for the crime.
When Joshua began serving his sentence, the pain he inflicted on an innocent family continued. There was no closure for them despite the life sentence. Maddie's parents dealt with their grief in different ways and they divorced after 25 years of marriage. They had been together for 30 years, having first met in high school.
Missy's husband, Steve Phillips, died in a car crash.
In 2020, having exhausted other appeals, Joshua appealed to the Supreme Court but the Florida Supreme Court turned down Joshua's appeal. Justices declined to hear arguments in the appeal.
Joshua filed an appeal in the Supreme Court based on a ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal. They ruled against him in an appeal in relation to his sentence. The appeal was brought after a ruling in another case, Miller v. Alabama, was handed down. That case was one in which the U.S. Supreme Court barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Joshua had been tried as an adult and sentenced to life even though he was a juvenile prior to that ruling. Subsequent to that ruling, he sought to have his sentence reduced. This was based on a law that was passed by the Florida Legislature after the ruling that set a sentencing range of 40 years to life for juveniles convicted of murder, with a sentence review hearing required after 25 years.
After that law took effect, Joshua had a new sentencing hearing and he was again sentenced to life in prison, subject to a review after 25 years. The Court addressed the effect of the crime on the victim's family and community and noted that "the way this murder and surrounding circumstances rocked the victim's family and this community is unmatched in the modern history of Jacksonville."
The Court found that the crime did not reflect the hallmarks of youth such as recklessness, but was a calculated, sexually motivated, heinously violent act. Further to that, they noted that Joshua went to great lengths to conceal the crime. The Court noted:
The facts demonstrate the brutality of the murder of Maddie Clifton. Her death was not accidental, it was intended. Her death was not quick or painless, it was long and agonizing. These facts also highlight disturbing aspects of Defendant's behavior: (1) the callousness and ruthless[ness] he demonstrated in the murder itself; (2) the cool, calm, and collected manner in which he carried on life, even helping in the search; and (3) the fact that he slept on top of her body for six days. All of these actions indicate to the Court the existence of something far more than mere immaturity, impetuosity, or the inability to assess consequences.
Joshua Phillips remains incarcerated.
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