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Clifton family calls Maddie's disappearance, death 'a nightmare'

Josh Phillips, in prison since age 14, being resentenced in 1998 murder

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a day of raw emotion that included a statement of apology by Josh Phillips, now 33 years old, for the 1998 murder of his 8-year-old neighbor, it was time for Maddie Clifton's family to share its pain.

"They sat us down on the couch and they told us they found her," Maddie's mother, Sheila DeLongis said. "The first thing (husband) Steve said was, 'Where was she?' Police said, 'Right across the street.'"

DeLongis, Steve Clifton and their oldest daughter, Jessie, testified Wednesday at the resentencing hearing for Phillips. He back in a Duval County courtroom 18 years after he was sentenced to life in prison without parole because the U.S. Supreme Court found all such sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional.

Phillips' lawyer is arguing that he convicted of first-degree murder when he was 15 years old has rehabilitated and should not spend the rest of his life in prison. Prosecutors and the Clifton family are determined to keep the convicted killed behind bars.

"I came downstairs and my family was standing in a circle, and it was just like any other day," Jessie Clifton said. "Everyone was crying, upset, and I got pulled into the middle of the circle and they said, 'Jessie, we found Maddie and she's no longer with us.' I cried and I ran out of the garage door and I started yelling her name because I didn't want to think of that was true. I fell to the concrete screaming her name."

Earlier Wednesday, the 33-year-old Phillips, who has spent more than half his life in prison for Maddie's murder took the stand and read a statement.

"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."

UNCUT: Josh Phillips reads letter of apology

"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 called Maddie's mother, father and sister to the stand before court recessed for the day.

DeLongis, testified about what happened in the hours and days after she disappeared.

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"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."

Father Steve Clifton said strange things began long before Maddie disappeared.

"It was a bizarre series of events that went on for months," Steve Clifton 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 and the defense rested Wednesday afternoon, attorney Tom Fallis continued calling witnesses to talk about Phillips' remorse, his behavior in prison and his mental state since he was sentenced.

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. 

Phillips' attorney is asking the court for a sentence of 40 years with credit for time served. The state is asking that Phillips continue to serve life in prison, with a review after 25 years.

The prosecution was expected to wrap up its case Thursday.