Life sentence upheld for Maddie Clifton’s killer

1st District Court of Appeal rejects Joshua Phillips’ claim that sentence was out of proportion to crime

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In one of the highest-profile cases in Jacksonville in recent decades, a state appeals court Tuesday upheld the life sentence of a neighbor convicted in the 1998 murder of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton.

Joshua Phillips, who was 14 at the time he committed the murder, contended that the life sentence was unconstitutional.

Phillips, now 35, was initially sentenced to life in prison after his conviction on a first-degree murder charge in 1999.

But in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

To address the Miller ruling, the Florida Legislature passed a law that set a sentencing range of 40 years to life for juveniles convicted of murder, with a sentence-review hearing required after 25 years, according to Tuesday’s ruling by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Phillips received a new sentencing hearing after the law took effect and was again sentenced to life in prison in 2017, subject to a review after 25 years.

Phillips appealed, arguing in part that his life sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because “he has proven himself to be neither incorrigible, irredeemable, nor irreparably corrupt” and that he had matured during nearly two decades in prison, the appeals court said.

But the panel rejected his arguments.

“We disagree that Phillips is entitled to relief,” said the ruling, written by Chief Judge Stephanie Ray and joined by judges Ross Bilbrey and Harvey Jay. “To begin with, Phillips did not receive an inescapable, irrevocable life sentence. … Phillips is entitled to judicial review of his sentence (after 25 years) to determine whether his sentence should be modified based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The Clifton girl disappeared Nov. 3, 1998, leading to a major search in the community. Her body was found a week later under Phillips’ waterbed, and she had been beaten and stabbed repeatedly.