Boy Grows Up In Prison After Killing Young Neighbor

At age 14, Josh Phillips faced first-degree murder charges, accused of beating and stabbing to death his 8-year-old neighbor, Maddie Clifton.

?I noticed the wet spot on the floor; that's what started me looking at the bed,? Josh's mother, Missy Phillips, said about the day she discovered Maddie?s body. "I didn't want to believe what I was seeing."

Missy walked out of her front door on Nov. 10, 1998, looking for a police officer. She said she remembers looking at the Cliftons' house and thinking that they still had hope but that in a minute they would know their daughter was dead.

At that moment, Missy said all she ever hoped and dreamed for her family ended. From that day on, the only contact with her son would be in jail.

Then-Sheriff Nat Glover explained how an officer found Maddie, saying when the officer entered Josh's room, he saw Maddie?s feet hanging out from under the boy's mattress.

Neighbors described Josh as quiet and friendly. Even Maddie's mother said the boy was Maddie?s friend and that she had no reason to be scared of him.

Police records showed that Josh had never been arrested. However, the details of what had been done to Maddie were disturbing.

Police said tape had been used to hold the boy?s bed frame together to keep Maddie?s body hidden. They said a baseball bat stashed behind Josh's dresser had been used as a weapon.

Autopsy results showed Maddie had been hit three times in the head. The girl's throat had been cut with a knife that investigators found in Josh's room. Maddie had also been stabbed seven times in the chest.

Evidence photos showed the boy?s tennis shoes had blood all over them.

Maddie's shorts and underwear had been removed. They were found near her body. While the autopsy showed no signs she'd been violated, the fact she was nude from the waist down would be considered key evidence for prosecutors as they built their case.

Pictures taken of Josh's room the morning Maddie was found showed air fresheners sitting on his nightstand, incense had recently been burned and a air freshener spray that police said the boy must have used to try to conceal the odor of Maddie's decomposing body were all found right next to a flier about her disappearance.

Police said the 14-year-old admitted to killing Maddie within hours of being arrested, but what Josh told investigators and what they believed led to Maddie's slaying were very different.

Josh's version of events, according to the police report, was that he and Maddie were playing baseball in his back yard when a ball hit her in the eye and she started to bleed and cry.

Investigators said Josh told them he brought her inside but she continued to scream. He told police he took his baseball bat and hit Maddie on the head hard once or twice to quiet her. He said he was afraid that his father, who was due home any minute, would be angry that he'd allowed the 8-year-old girl to come over.

He told police as his father returned from work, he could still hear Maddie moaning. He told the detectives he then pulled her out and stabbed her several times in the chest. He told them that her shorts and underpants came off when he dragged her body from the back yard into his room.

Police said as they removed Maddie's body her hand was found clutching the frame of her neighbor?s bed. They said she was still alive when he pushed her under.

During the six days the community searched for Maddie, Josh had said nothing. The 14-year-old was even among those looking for the missing girl.

?Josh said, ?What's going on? Well, I'll come out and look for her.? All the time he knew exactly where she was, acted as if nothing had ever happened,? said Maddie's mother.

?He said, ?My mom thought maybe you could use this picnic table.? So, I met him in the street and carried it over and said, ?Thanks Josh. I appreciate it.? It's just ironic that he went to bed that night with Maddie right under him and went to sleep just like any other night,? said Maddie's father.

As Maddie?s parents were forced to plan their daughter's burial, the Phillipses prepared to fight for their child?s life in court.

Missy said she became known as the mother of the boy who murdered his 8-year-old neighbor and hid her body under his bed.

?So many times I'd hear people remark, ?What's wrong with that family? Why didn't they see this, and why didn't they notice that?? Because there wasn't anything there out of the ordinary for me to notice. I came home from work that night; there was nothing wrong with my house,? Missy said.

She said her son had been really quiet the week Maddie disappeared.

?I attributed it to the fact that he was scared. Someone he knew, someone in the neighborhood disappeared,? Missy said.

She said it was too hard to hear the details of how Maddie was murdered. After a decade of trying to understand, Missy talked with Channel 4 about her son's relationship with his father.

"I think if he hadn't been so intimidating and sometimes overbearing -- and he could be frightening. He could be loud and he could be unpredictable. Josh and I walked on eggshells," Missy said.

Missy said her husband didn't like neighborhood children to be in the house when no adults were home and he didn't want Josh playing with girls younger than him.

"I remember he didn't have a fondness of little girls. I remember when I was pregnant, thinking, 'Please let it be a boy, please let it be a boy.' I wasn't sure what it would be like if I'd had a girl, and that's something that I haven't really said to many people," Missy said.

She said she doesn't know why her husband felt that way, and she said she was stunned by his reaction to their son's arrest.

"He was angry at the Cliftons, and I didn't understand why. He would say some things and I'd say, 'How can you say that? How can you be this way?' It's like he almost -- I don?t want to say that he blamed them, but he had misdirected anger and grief," Missy said.

For the next several months, she and her husband prepared for their son's trial. The boy's attorney, Richard Nichols, argued what happened to Maddie was an accident -- manslaughter that was not premeditated or planned. The trial was moved to the small town of Bartow in Polk County after a judge agreed that the publicity in Duval County of Maddie's slaying would make it too difficult to find impartial jurors.

Every step of the trial was broadcast on Court TV. State Attorney Harry Shorstein and his chief assistant, Jay Plotkin, argued that Josh's version of what happened to Maddie didn't make sense.

"What he was saying was that this started out as an accident. We never believed that based on the physical evidence and based our evaluation of all the evidence," Plotkin said.

The prosecutors argued Josh lied about why he killed Maddie.

"There was no indication that he was ever playing baseball with her, which is what part of his argument was," Plotkin said. "The autopsy didn't support where he said hitting her in the eye or eye area with the ball. There wasn't physical evidence that really supported that."

Police said Josh had told them he dragged Maddie's body from his back yard to his bedroom.

"The lack of dirt and sand on her body -- it just didn't support that. It didn't make sense," Plotkin said.

Plotkin said there was no blood found in Josh's back yard or leading to his room, suggesting that Maddie was not injured before she entered his room, and prosecutors said what happened to Maddie was premeditated.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Josh could have stopped at any time, but he didn't.

As Shorstein and Plotkin rested their case, Josh's attorney made a surprising move. Nichols didn't call a single witness on the boy's behalf -- a risky strategy that Plotkin said would give Nichols the opportunity to have the final word in front of the jurors.

"Joshua Phillips is not a monster but because of an act that began as an accident and deteriorated through panic that bordered on madness," Nichols said in court in 1999.

He used his closing argument as a chance to argue that Maddie's murder was an accident or manslaughter, hoping that argument would make a lasting impression on jurors as they began deliberating Josh's fate.

Missy said Nichols' strategy was a surprise to her and her husband.

"Richard would say certain things, that he'd do this or do that, and in the 11th hour he wouldn't do them. I would be angry about it, 'I thought you'd do this, and that's not helping Josh,' and then Steve would tell me, 'He's the professional. He's the lawyer, so just stay out of it,'" Missy said.

She said she felt helpless when it came to her son's defense. She said her attorney discouraged them from agreeing to put Josh on the stand to testify.

"I was afraid that if he did take the stand how would he stand up to questioning with Harry Shorstein," Missy said.

In the end, Josh never uttered a word in court about what he said happened the day Maddie was murdered.

It didn't take jurors long before deciding on a guilty verdict and recommending life in prison with no chance of parole for Josh.

"You just can't envision that for your child. I couldn't understand how they could come to that conclusion, but they did. I had to hope that at some point the appellate procedures would give him some hope," Missy said.

At 15 years old, Josh became inmate number J11775 and was ordered to the Marion County Correctional Facility near Ocala to spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Josh has grown from a teenager to an adult behind prison walls. He is now 24 years old.

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