Supreme Court ruling affects child killer's sentence

Court: Unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole for murder

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Supreme Court ruling Monday that says it's unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for murder will have an effect on the Joshua Phillips case in Jacksonville, an attorney handling the appeal said.

Phillips, now 28, was convicted in the 1998 murder of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton and sentenced to life without parole. At the time of the murder, Phillips was 14.

The high court on Monday threw out Americans' ability to send children to prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of ever getting out. The 5-4 decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.

The decision came in the robbery and murder cases of Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, who were 14 when they were convicted. Miller was convicted of killing a man in Alabama. Jackson was convicted of being an accomplice in an Arkansas robbery that ended in murder.

The decision will affect about 2,500 youth offenders nationwide, according to Human Rights Watch.

"It is a very well-reasoned decision," said Tom Fallis, Phillips' attorney. "Josh is going to get some relief; just how much, we don't know yet."

Maddie Clifton

Phillips may not get parole for killing Clifton (pictured right), but the Supreme Court's ruling means his sentencing can be reviewed by a judge. It's uncertain when Fallis might seek a re-sentencing hearing for Phillips under this ruling.

Fallis said he spoke to Phillips' mother on the phone and is excited his client could one day be out of prison.

"Josh has been a model, model prisoner. I mean he has educated himself," Fallis said. "He's a model prisoner. If we have a re-sentencing, we can bring all that up."

Even the man who prosecuted the case, former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, admits he's had a change of heart and wouldn't mind seeing Phillips released from prison one day.

"No, I wouldn't," Shorstein said. "Everything I've heard about his progress while being in prison indicates he would be an appropriate subject, at least for review."

Clifton's mother, Sheila DeLongis, gave this statement Monday in response to the ruling:

"After reading the (court's) decision, I find that I am in complete agreement with Chief Justice (John) Roberts, who stated, 'Neither the text of the Constitution or our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole.' The thought that I will again have to relive the horror of my (baby's) brutal murder brings me to tears. That Josh Phillips may one day walk out of prison, a free man, while my baby lies in a grave is beyond comprehension. If he is to be eligible for parole, let it be after I leave this world. This man not only took my child from me, he denied me the right to say goodbye to her. With this ruling by the Supreme Court, every family in a situation like mine is re-victimized."

The court's ruling could also affect the outcome of the case against Cristian Fernandez, a 13-year-old Jacksonville boy awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree murder. If convicted, Fernandez can no longer be sentenced to a mandatory life sentence.

"If what you're asking is, 'Does it change the potential outcome?' -- again, today's decision does nothing other than say, 'You can't have a mandatory life sentence for first-degree murder on a person who's under the age of 18,'" said Richard Mantei, an assistant state attorney under current State Attorney Angela Corey.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.