Sister anxious Maddie Clifton's killer could go free

Man convicted of killing 8-year-old girl when he was 14 was sentenced to life

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The sister of 8-year-old murder victim Maddie Clifton doesn't want her sister's killer to ever walk out of prison.

But a 2012 Supreme Court ruling has made that a possibility.

Joshua Phillips, now 31, was convicted in the 1998 murder of Maddie and was sentenced to life without parole. At the time of the murder, Phillips was 14.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. That ruling entitles Phillips (pictured below) to a re-sentencing hearing.

Department of Corrections booking photo of Joshua Phillips

Attorneys from both sides of the case held a hearing Tuesday morning, on the 17th anniversary of Maddie Clifton's disappearance. Phillips was not present.

Judge Waddell Wallace ordered that Phillips' attorney, George Fallis, present any re-sentencing motions before the court by Jan. 8. The next hearing, where the judge will set a sentencing date, is scheduled for Jan. 19.

Maddie's sister, Jessica Clifton, said she understands Phillips has a constitutional right to have another sentencing hearing, but she hopes that the judge will rule to keep him behind bars the rest of his life.

Maddie Clifton

"She doesn't get a chance to walk on this earth again, so why should he?" Jessica Clifton said. "I don't think I would feel safe. I would not feel safe at all. And I think that that is just worldly consequences. You do something wrong and you pay the price."

Jessica Clifton was 11 years old when Maddie was killed in a case that garnered national attention. Police said Phillips, Maddie's neighbor, stabbed her and clubbed her to death in his San Jose area home. He hid her body under his waterbed in his room.

Phillips' mother discovered the body a week later, after a massive search for the missing girl. Phillips was convicted a year later.

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"I miss her very much," Jessica Clifton said. "To think in my mind that we could potentially have to sit through another week process of trying to keep him in prison is a little overwhelming. My stomach has been hurting all morning."

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision, which affects about 2,500 youth offenders nationwide, according to Human Rights Watch, is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.

The decision came in the robbery and murder cases of Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, who were 14 when they were convicted. Miller was convicted of killing a man in Alabama. Jackson was convicted of being an accomplice in an Arkansas robbery that ended in murder.

Phillips may not get parole for killing Maddie (pictured) but the Supreme Court's ruling means his sentencing can be reviewed by a judge.

"We don't have a parole system in the state of Florida, so in essence, what is going to happen is the court is going to have to come back and say a specific period, a specific term, and that may be a term that keeps him in jail the rest of his life," said attorney Gene Nichols, who's not connected to the case. "It may not be. And that is why they are going to have a hearing to figure out what that number should be."

Tom Fallis, who is also representing Phillips, told News4Jax his client is entitled to a new sentence. He said Phillips has an excellent record in prison and has educated himself. Tom Fallis said he plans to bring in experts to explain that the brain of a child is very different than that of an adult. Tom Fallis did not say what sentence he was seeking.

"The initial judge's intent was to keep him in prison the rest of his life," Nichols said. "You can expect that most likely that is going to happen in this case as well. But he does have a fine team of lawyers that are going to try to get it reduced."

Assistant State Attorney John Guy would not comment after the hearing, but the State Attorney's Office released a statement saying Phillips' defense has not filed a motion for re-sentencing. "Should the defense file a motion, the state will move forward with a re-sentencing in this case," the statement said.

While she waits to find out what happens next for Phillips, Jessica Clifton asked for prayers for her family.

"If I can get as many people as I can to just say a little prayer," Jessica said. "My mother and father have been through so much. They don't even understand how much it helps." 

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