JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The sister of an 8-year-old girl whose murder made national news nearly two decades ago said spending a week in court for the killer's resentencing hearing was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting.
Josh Phillips, now 33, was 14 years old when he hit his neighbor, Maddie Clifton, repeatedly with a baseball bat, slit her throat and hid her body in his bed as police, family and strangers searched for the little girl for a week.
The case has captured the Jacksonville community's attention since 1998. Phillips was sentenced to life without parole at age 15 -- a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2012.
That ruling allowed Phillips a resentencing hearing, which began Monday and ended Thursday, with tearful words from Maddie's parents and her sister, Jessie Clifton.
“It's one of those things where it doesn't feel real. It doesn't feel like that was my life. It was. It's not anymore,” Jessie Clifton told News4Jax the day after the hearing ended without a decision from the judge.
Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace said he would take the case under advisement and would not announce
Phillips' sentence until after a Sept. 22 hearing. He ordered that Phillips be returned to prison until that hearing.
For now, Jessie and her family must wait.
“If you've done something so horrible that you're 14 and get tried as an adult, I really don't think that I or anyone else would feel comfortable with changing that,” Jessie said. “I don't think there's any reason to change that.”
Jessie, who has moved back into the childhood home she shared with Maddie, said her family never could have imagined how emotional sitting through the hearing would be.
She said she woke up Friday morning feeling like she had been hit by a truck.
Jessie said she was prepared for most of what happened in court this week -- until Phillips took the stand Wednesday afternoon and apologized.
“I think it was something that needed to be said,” Jessie said. “I still don't really know how I feel about it.”
Jessie said she applauds Phillips for what he said, but she's not in a position to forgive him.
“Anytime the forgiveness word is brought up, all I see is that guy on the stand showing how he did it, and it's just like, how do you expect me to take on that burden to forgive you? I can't,” she said.
Jessie said after seeing Phillips walk into the courtroom for the first time Monday she felt for hours like she couldn't breathe.
But she said if the judge rules that Phillips gets life in prison with a sentence review, she'll be back in court for that hearing when it happens.
“If it has to be done, it has to be done,” Jessie said through tears. “Because I will get up here, sit here, and fight for her until I'm no longer on this earth, and I always will. She was my best friend, and I will always fight for her, because I know if it was the other way around, she would do it for me.”
News4Jax has offered Phillips' mother an opportunity to share her thoughts and feelings about the case and the resentencing hearing. She said when she is ready to speak, she will contact us.