Life sentence for Maddie Clifton's killer under review

Joshua Phillips hopes to get 40 years with time served

By Chris Parenteau - Reporter , Ashley Mitchem - Reporter, anchor , News4Jax.com Staff

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Lawyers for 33-year-old Josh Phillips, who was convicted of killing his neighbor, Maddie Clifton, when he was 14 years old, told a judge Monday that he has turned his life around in prison.

On Nov. 3, 1998, Phillips hit the 8-year-old with a baseball bat several times, slit her throat, then hid her body in his bed as police, family and strangers searched for her for a week.

Phillips was convicted the following year and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But his sentence and those of thousands of other juveniles were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. 

As Phillips' resentencing hearing began, defense attorney Tom Fallis said the state has an implicit burden to come forward with evidence that Phillips is among "one of (the) rarest juveniles" that the Supreme Court ruling said could be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The first witness was a psychologist called by the defense, who said multiple times that based on his evaluation of Josh Phillips earlier this year, he believes Phillips is being rehabilitated, if not fully rehabilitated already.

"He committed a horrendous act and it’s tragic," Dr. Steven Bloomfield said. "But I think it wasn’t, it doesn’t seem to me based everything I’ve read and my discussions with him, that he planned to do this. It seems to me it fits into a pattern of an immature thought process, not a psychosis."

Bloomfield said he found Phillips has an above-average level of intelligence, and even today, Phillips can't explain why he beat Maddie to death.

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said Phillips had an obsession with Clifton’s older sister, Jessie, and asked Bloomfield about a potential mental state of Phillips based on Maddie Clifton being partially undressed when she was found. Bloomfield said they didn’t speak about that and he didn’t do a psychosexual evaluation of Phillips, but thinks one should have been done.

Fallis also said one of his witnesses will be former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who tried the case. The current prosecutor, de la Rionda, said Shorstein's opinion is irrelevant to the sentencing.

Fallis is asking the court for a sentence of 40 years with credit for time served, but the prosecution wants life with review after 25 years.

Maddie's parents and sister were among a large group of family members who filled nearly half the gallery of the courtroom Friday morning. Members of the Clifton family were emotional when the prosecution reviewed the details of the murder.

Phillips was transferred from the Florida Department of Corrections to the Duval County jail ahead of the hearing, and Maddie's older sister, Jessie Clifton, said, “It’s a very scary feeling knowing he’s back in Jacksonville.”

"I think that everything is going to be hard to relive again, to see him, be in front of him," Jessie Clifton said before Monday's hearing began. "I want to make sure the messages that everyone knows we are thankful and appreciate prayers and support, and I know the community will come together again. The judge still needs to know how big of a deal this is. We are very thankful, and it's not going unseen. I don't want people to think I'm ignoring them when they reach out; it's just overwhelming. Everything happened so quickly, and it's here already. We are doing the best we can. We are all hanging in there."

After court dismissed Monday, Jessie Clifton said it was an emotional day and they know the rest of the week will be, too. She also knows this was the tip of the iceberg for them. The hearing is expected to last thought Thursday.

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