JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Wednesday marks 23 years since one of Jacksonville’s highest-profile murders.
Maddie Clifton, 8, was murdered on Nov. 3, 1998, by her neighbor Josh Phillips, who was resentenced in November 2017 to life in prison.
Phillips, now 37, was 14 years old when he hit Maddie 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 2017, Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace III announced his decision that November, 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 Phillips and Maddie cried after the decision was read.
Phillips' life sentence will be reviewed 25 years after his original conviction. That would have Phillips back in a Duval County courtroom in 2023.
During the hearing in August 2017, 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 has previously said their hearts go out to Phillips’ family, knowing they have suffered, as well. They said this is something no family should ever have to go through.