JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Josh Phillips will spend the rest of his life in prison for the 1998 murder of his 8-year-old neighbor, Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace III announced Friday morning.
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. Police, family and strangers searched for the little girl for a week.
Phillips was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole at age 15 -- a sentence that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2012.
After listening as family members shared their horrific memories of Maddie's death during a hearing in August, the judge announced his decision Friday based on his review of the evidence and case law. He had the leeway to sentence Phillips to a minimum of 40 years on the first-degree murder conviction, or, given special circumstances, up to life in prison.
Wallace said there is no explanation for the detachment, the coldness or the callousness of the murder. He said this was not impulsive or a mistake, but that Maddie was lured intentionally.
"It is appropriate to impose a life sentence (for a juvenile) in a case that's a truly unusual case, one of a series of ways (the higher courts) describe it: Irredeemable depravity or the worst of the worst or circumstances that are truly unique and different from the ordinary," Wallace said. "I believe this is one of the most rare and unusual crimes that warrants life in prison."
The judge spoke for almost 30 minutes, giving his perspective on this case and the changes Phillips has made in prison, but said he felt the community would suffer if Phillips was let free.
The families of both Josh Phillips and Maddie Clifton cried after the decision was read. Maddie's family showed visible relief.
Jessie Clifton was 11 when Phillips killed Maddie. She has been in and out of courtrooms since the late 1990s.
Friday, 19 years later, Jessie walked out of the courtroom feeling a sense of justice.
"Coming into today, I was very worried," Maddie's older sister, Jessie, said. "But it turned out the way that I wanted it to."
"I feel so good about this. I really do. He can't hurt anybody else ever again," said Maddie's mother, Sheila DeLongis. "No one should ever have to go through this twice. We did it and we got our justice."
Phillips’ attorney Tom Fallis did not comment as he left the courtroom, but he is likely to appeal the sentence.
Phillips' life sentence will be reviewed 25 years after his original conviction. That would have Phillips back in a Duval County courtroom in 2023.
While Maddie's family members hope that Friday will be the last time they ever have to sit in the same room as Phillips, they said they would tell their story again and as often as necessary to make sure Phillips is never released.
"I will get up here, sit here, and fight for her until I'm no longer on this Earth, and I always will," Jessie Clifton said after the August hearing. "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.”
During the hearing in August, Phillips took the stand, apologizing to Maddie's family.
"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."
The Clifton family said their hearts goes out to Josh Phillips' family, knowing they have suffered, as well. They say this is something no family should ever have to go through.