By Paul Pinkham,
Few homicides have dominated Northeast Florida's consciousness like the murder 10 years ago Monday of Maddie Clifton.
Just 8 years old, she disappeared on Election Day from her family's Lakewood home. For a week she was simply gone. Hundreds of people searched Dumpsters and woods around the secluded Southside neighborhood. Police sealed off the area and interviewed neighbors. Yellow ribbons sprung up everywhere as people hoped and prayed Maddie would be found.
A week later, Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover made a grim and emotional announcement. Maddie's body had been found, stuffed under the water bed of her 14-year-old neighbor and playmate, Josh Phillips. Josh's mother made the discovery and alerted police. Thousands lined San Jose Boulevard for Maddie's funeral procession.
Phillips was indicted as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in Polk County, where his trial was moved because of publicity in Jacksonville. He was sentenced to a mandatory life term in prison, where he remains today.Phillips' story:
BOWLING GREEN - Josh Phillips remembers the exact moment he wrapped his teenaged mind around his life prison sentence.
At 16, he'd already been locked up two years for murdering his 8-year-old Jacksonville neighbor, Maddie Clifton.
He left the prison chow hall to see a line of gray-haired inmates with walkers and canes. The pill line.
"I was like, 'Wow, that's going to be me,' and that's when it really hit me," Phillips told the Times-Union in an exclusive interview at Hardee Correctional Institution. "I got real depressed when that happened. Then I realized ... it's going to be 60 years before I look like them."
Monday marks 10 years since Maddie vanished from her Lakewood home.
Her disappearance gripped Jacksonville like no other. Hundreds of volunteers combed through her secluded Southside neighborhood. Maddie's Kool-Aid smile graced billboards and T-shirts throughout the city. Images of her agonized parents dominated the news.
A week later, her body was found across the street by Phillips' mother, entombed under her son's water bed. The 14-year-old with no history of violence told police he panicked after accidentally hitting Maddie with a ball while playing because he was afraid of his dad's reaction. He said he beat her with a bat and stabbed her to keep her from crying. Authorities believe he killed her in his bedroom.
He was charged as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a mandatory life prison term, with no hope of parole. The judge called him "monstrous."
Now 24, the boy who killed Maddie has grown up in prison. Oddly, the experience doesn't seem to have hardened him. But it has changed him.
Gone is the gangly, expressionless teenager who looked on flatly as his fate was sealed. In its place is a seasoned lifer who speaks of empathy and morality and fights back tears when asked about Maddie and her family.
"I have this little apology litany that I go through to make certain that she knows that I'm sorry and also that I'm trying to make her life worth something. I'm trying because I'm still here," he said. "I want to be someone who can relieve suffering."
A week in denial Phillips said he thinks about Maddie all the time. It usually happens when he starts feeling sorry for himself.
"I start thinking, 'Man, it really sucks I missed out on this and that.' And as soon as I get there, I think, 'What did she miss out on?' " he said.
Those thoughts are far deeper than what was in his mind the week Maddie was missing.
He wouldn't discuss the murder with the Times-Union but said that week, as cops and strangers swarmed his neighborhood, he was in denial. He had Maddie's missing-child flier on his night stand and even helped hand out fliers.
He said it never occurred to him to run.
"Through the entire time, I was putting myself in a fantasy world that nothing had happened. That was my defense mechanism for everything when I was a kid," he said. "I never made the decision ... to ignore it. I just did."
State Attorney Harry Shorstein used that against him at trial, arguing that Phillips' ability to carry on with his victim under his bed was a sign of coldness.
Once in jail, he wouldn't talk about the case, not even with his lawyer, Richard D. Nichols. And Nichols did little to coax him, Phillips said. Nichols has since died.
"He didn't even really try to find out what happened," Phillips said. "I didn't help him."
He said their infrequent jail visits consisted of chess matches on a homemade board Phillips fashioned in his cell. Neither he nor his parents knew anything about the law, so when Nichols decided at trial not to call witnesses, they assumed he knew what he was doing, Phillips said. He said his mother questioned the strategy, but his father, now deceased, told them to trust the lawyer.
Had Nichols mounted a defense, jurors could have convicted Phillips of a lesser charge like second-degree murder or manslaughter, which would have meant a shorter sentence, said Phillips' new attorney, Thomas Fallis. Nichols' defense strategy is the subject of an appeal Fallis is preparing.
As one of Florida's youngest inmates, Phillips was an anomaly to the prison system. When he looks back now, he realizes he was lucky.
Too naive to know who meant him harm, he said he was fortunate to fall in with a group of older inmates who taught him how to survive and stay out of trouble. And he said he realizes that prison officials were protecting him by limiting his time in the yard and housing him in open barracks instead of a cell.
A chance at redemption
Two of the Jacksonville officials most responsible for Phillips' sentence now have second thoughts.
"It was a draconian sentence," Shorstein said. "If there were a case for executive clemency or parole, I would support it. Not for it to be done today, but for reconsideration of the life sentence."
Shorstein said he has no qualms about charging Phillips as an adult or with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence. Those were the right decisions at the time because the crime was so shocking, he said.
But Shorstein said he regrets not offering a second-degree murder plea, which would have given the judge discretion, particularly because Phillips appeared to be a shy, normal teen who liked computers.
He said the law needs to take into account psychiatric research since 1999 that shows teens Phillips' age are less culpable than adults because their brains aren't developed enough to grasp long-term consequences or completely control impulses.
Former Sheriff Nat Glover agreed there needs to be accountability, but also hope for redemption.
"I know some people thought that sentence was appropriate, but that was a tough sentence for someone that young," Glover said. "I never got the feeling that it was a malicious, mean-spirited, calculated murder. It was kind of an impulsive act that, given a different set of circumstances, would never have happened."
Nationally there is a slow trend away from the tough juvenile sanctions wrought by a spike in violent crime in the '90s, said Northwestern University law professor Steven Drizin. Some states have eliminated life without parole in youth murder cases, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down death sentences for juveniles in 2005 based on the new research.
Florida Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, tried unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would allow parole for juvenile felons younger than 16. Even mass murderer Charles Manson comes up for parole, Geller said.
One of those who blocked the legislation was state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, former chairman of the criminal justice committee. Wise doubts lawmakers will ever undo the '90s legislation because they don't want to be responsible for releasing someone from prison who then commits a heinous crime.
"At what point do you become rehabilitated?" Wise said. "You can't know the future."
Maddie's mother said Phillips' sentence is appropriate.
"Josh did get a life sentence, but Maddie got the death sentence. She was only 8 years old," Sheila Clifton Delongis said. "He should not be cut a deal just because he was 14."
Delongis said she knew Phillips as a neighbor and has no doubt he knew right from wrong.
The need for hope
Phillips has dreams of freedom, but admits they might not be realistic.
"My sense is I'm going to get out one day. Whether I really believe it or not is not really the point," he said. "I just kind of superficially believe it enough to keep me going.
"I really don't know if I deserve it or not, but I know I want ... a second chance. Maybe I deserve to die in prison ... but I can't look at it like that. Doing that is just a cop-out. ... Why would I try to learn anything? Why would I try to improve myself? Why would I try to help anybody if I'm just going to lay down and die in here?"
Part of him is thankful he was prosecuted as an adult. It's a paradox. If he'd been tried in juvenile court, he'd be free now. But he doesn't think he'd be as rehabilitated or mature if he hadn't had to come to terms with dying in prison. He also said he would have been more easily manipulated in a juvenile facility, where peer pressure is stronger.
"It might have gone worse for me in some respects," he said.
Except for his mother, who visits faithfully, and the occasional letter from one of his brothers, Phillips has had no contact with anyone from his past.
He's also had no contact with Maddie's family. People have suggested he write them an apology letter, an idea he rejects as "cheesy."
"They deserve to hear it from me personally ... so they can see the sincerity," he said. "They won't be able to see it in a letter. They won't be able to see it in a phone call or ... on TV."
Delongis said she has no interest in talking to her daughter's killer, but Maddie's sister does. Now 21, Jessie Clifton said she wants to meet with him to get some answers.
"He changed my life," she said. "I'm not going there to be mean. I'm not going there to be rude. I just want to talk to him."
Maddie would be 18 today, probably in college. She'd likely be driving, working, dating - all the rites of youth.
Despite his incarceration, Phillips has been able to do some of those things. He got his GED, though initially prison officials told him he was too young. He's taken some correspondence college classes, and he works as a paralegal helping other inmates with their appeals.
He also plays guitar in a prison band and participates in a Christian prison ministry, Zen meditation and yoga. He can't imagine hurting anyone now.
"I've grown a lot," he said. "This has taught me to understand just about anybody's pain. I've learned to ... almost completely put myself in someone else's shoes and really feel whatever they're feeling.
"It's taught me to be a better person."
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