JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 33-year-old man who has spent more than half his life in prison for the murder of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton took the stand Wednesday at his resentencing hearing.
"I did something horrible. I am so sorry, so sorry for what happened," Josh Phillips said. "I wish to God that I could have known this or understood this when I was 14. Had I then, none of this would have come about. I had no clue what life meant, what death meant, nor the depth of suffering that could follow one act."
Phillips, 33, is back in a Duval County courtroom after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional. His lawyer is arguing that the man convicted of first-degree murder when he was a teenager in 1998 has rehabilitated and should not spend the rest of his life in prison.
"I don't pretend to know or understand your pain or to grasp the void I created in your lives," Phillips said, addressing the Clifton family. "I can say this, I do understand pain. I have become quite intimate with suffering. Growing up in prison, I've seen many dark things and I've been some dark places. Many times throughout this journey, I came close to ending my life, just to escape it all."
After Phillips read a four-minute statement, the defense rested and prosecutors began to call witnesses, beginning with Maddie's mother, Sheila DeLongis, testified about her youngest daughter and what happened in the hours and days after she disappeared.
"We went from house to house asking, have you seen Maddie? And we never found her. We came on back to the house. I actually stood out in our front yard and urinated in my shorts, I was so upset screaming her name," DeLongis said. "Then the helicopters came. It was like a circus; there was everybody going in every direction possible trying to find her."
Maddie's father, Steve Clifton, and older sister, Jessie, also testified before court recessed for the day.
"It was a bizarre series of events that went on for months," Steve Phillips said. "It became evident that someone was trying to and gained access to our home when we were not there. I started noticing some pry marks and jimmy marks on the windows outside and my kids aren’t going to try and pry the window open to get in the house."
Before calling Phillips to the stand Wednesday, defense attorney Tom Fallis continued calling witnesses to talk about Phillips' remorse, his behavior in prison and his mental state since he was sentenced to life at age 15.
A psychologist testified that the development of the human brain and how it changes over time. He said that he spoke to Phillips earlier this year and heard about abuse from his father, his mother’s depression and sexual abuse as some of the things he went through as a child.
Among witnesses called by the defense Tuesday was the man who prosecuted Phillips in 1998, former State Attorney Harry Shorstein. He said that a lot has changed in the last two decades about what is known regarding brain science.
“A lot of times, in law, we think we know everything and everything has a black-and-white answer,” Shorstein said. “(If I was prosecuting the case today), I would give it greater weight -- a decision to charge with second-degree murder -- because of the evidence we have today than (I did) at that time.”
Shorstein said he gave consideration to what Maddie's family wanted at the time, but decided on his own to charge Phillips with first-degree murder.
Maddie's family was visibly frustrated during Shorstein's testimony.
Other witnesses Tuesday spoke to whether Phillips has been rehabilitated during his nearly 20 years in prison. They pointed out that Phillips has had only four minor disciplinary reports in that time and none since 2005.
Both witnesses said that while the goal of prison is rehabilitation and that Phillips has behaved better than most during his sentence, there's no way to really know if Phillips might end up back in prison.
The prosecution was expected to wrap up its case Thursday.
The state is asking that Phillips continue to serve life in prison, with a review after 25 years. Phillips' attorney is asking the court for a sentence of 40 years with credit for time served.