Resentencing of inmate convicted of murder at 14 delayed

Joshua Phillips killed 8-year-old neighbor, Maddie Clifton, in 1998

By Heather Leigh - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The resentencing of Maddie Clifton's killer that was scheduled for next month has been canceled. 

Joshua Phillips, now 32, was convicted in the 1998 murder of his 8-year-old neighbor and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. At the time of the murder, Phillips was 14.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court said in 2015 that the law is retroactive, which is why Phillips' lawyer, Tom Fallis, asked the court for a new sentencing hearing.

At a pretrial hearing Wednesday, Fallis asked for more time to prepare. A new trial date was not scheduled. The next status hearing in the case is March 15.

At a hearing last year, Fallis said some of the medical expertise from Phillips' original trial is no longer relevant because of current research into juvenile psychology.

"We're going to need a lot of experts," Fallis said. "This is going to be a very long hearing when it's set, and there will be evidence from what's happened in the last 20 years, what's happened in prison. I suspect there may be experts on prison life and how it affected a 14-year-old who's now 30-some-odd years old, and so the court needs to be educated. And the way you do that is through experts."

Fallis said new scientific research on the development of children's brains could reveal a lot in Phillips' case.

"We have to determine what was going through that young child's mind at the time,” Fallis said. “Did he have the ability or the requisite intent to commit the crime he was accused of? Children are different, and finally it's been recognized.”

The state argued that calling new specialists and expert could be “absurd” and costly, but Wallace agreed to hiring a new expert and said the findings will be essential to the case because of Phillips' brain development.

Wallace set a status hearing for Phillips' resentencing for June 14, when the defense will discuss any new discovery materials and will provide a list of experts it plans to call and why.

Police said Phillips, Maddie's neighbor, stabbed her and clubbed her to death in his San Jose area home. He hid her body under the waterbed in his room.

Phillips' mother discovered the body a week later, after a massive search for the missing girl. Phillips was convicted a year later.

Maddie's family members said they didn't want to comment on the court proceedings Thursday, but they are aware of what happened.

Fallis said he believes that his client can be rehabilitated.

“I believe the court will, too, once they see what he's accomplished in the last almost 20 years in prison,” Fallis said. “He's come a long way, and that's going to be evidence. … The court is going to be asked to make a prediction."

Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.