Josh Phillips (murderer)
Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips (born March 17, 1984) is an American who was convicted of murder as a child. In November 1998, when he was 14 years old, Phillips killed his friend and neighbor, 8-year-old Maddie Clifton. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole the following year. Phillips stated that he killed Clifton to stop her from crying after she was accidentally struck with a baseball while they were playing; he feared punishment from his abusive father. Elements of his story are disputed, though officials involved in his prosecution have subsequently voiced regret for the severity of his sentence. Phillips is eligible for re-sentencing in 2023.
Phillips in a mugshot in 2009
Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips
March 17, 1984
Allentown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Education||Blackstone Career Institute|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at the Cross City Correctional Institution|
|Motive||Ending victim's crying, avoiding punishment from father|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment (eligible for re-sentencing in 2023)|
|Date||November 3, 1998|
|November 10, 1998|
|Imprisoned at||Cross City Correctional Institution|
Phillips was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on March 17, 1984, to Steve and Melissa Phillips. Steve, a drug addict and alcoholic, was violent towards Phillips and Melissa, who both reported living in fear of him. Steve imposed strict rules on his son. He would become angry if Phillips had other children in their house when he was not present, and had a particular dislike for young girls; Melissa said she never understood why her husband disliked girls.
In November 1998, Phillips was 14 years old and living with his family in Jacksonville, Florida. Neighbors described Phillips as "quiet and friendly". According to Maddie Clifton's mother, Phillips and her daughter were friends and she never had any reason to be afraid of him. Phillips had no arrests and no history of violence prior to the murder.
Murder of Maddie Clifton
According to Phillips, on November 3, 1998, he was home alone when Maddie Clifton, who lived across the road from him, came to his house asking him to come outside and play baseball. Phillips agreed, even though he was not allowed to have friends over while his parents were not home. As the two were playing baseball, Clifton threw the ball at him and he accidentally hit it into her eye, causing her to bleed, cry, and scream. Phillips panicked, knowing Steve would be home soon and fearing his reaction. He dragged Clifton into his house; he said that the clothing came off her lower body as he did so. He hit her again with the baseball bat to stop her from screaming before putting her under the base of his bed. When Steve returned home, Phillips interacted with him for a time before returning to his room. When he discovered that Clifton was still alive, moaning under his bed, he removed the mattress, cut her throat and stabbed her in the chest seven times with the knife from a Leatherman tool, killing her.
Clifton's disappearance was reported around 5:00 pm that day. Police and volunteers searched for Clifton for six days; Phillips participated in the search. He later stated he spent the following week living in denial, saying, "I was putting myself in a fantasy world that nothing had happened. That was my defense mechanism for everything when I was a kid. I never made the decision ... to ignore it. I just did." On November 10, Melissa Phillips went into her son's room and noticed a wet spot on the floor. She searched the room and found Clifton's body, immediately leaving the house to report the incident to police. Phillips was arrested that same day at his school, and confessed to the murder within hours.
Prosecutors disputed some parts of Phillips's story. According to Jay Plotkin, chief assistant to the State Attorney, there "wasn't physical evidence that really supported" that Clifton was struck in the eye with a baseball. The autopsy found no evidence of sexual assault, though Plotkin argued the lack of dirt and sand on Clifton's body did not support Phillips's assertion that her clothes came off as he dragged her into his room.
Phillips was tried as an adult. His trial, held in 1999, was moved to Polk County, Florida, over concerns about the publicity in Jacksonville. Phillips's lawyer, Richard D. Nichols, did not call a single witness for the defense, a move the prosecutors later said was surprising and also a risky strategy. Nichols intended to base much of the defense on a closing argument to the jurors, where he stated Clifton's death was "an act that began as an accident and deteriorated through panic that bordered on madness". Accordingly to Phillips, Nichols never attempted to question him over the events of the murder, and only played chess with him when visiting him in prison prior to the trial. Melissa disagreed with Nichols's strategy, though Steve insisted on letting the lawyer do as he pleased. Nichols discouraged Phillips's parents from allowing him to testify. Accordingly, Phillips never spoke during his trial. Jurors quickly convicted him of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Life in prison
In 2000, Phillips's father Steve was killed in a car accident. Phillips completed his General Educational Development in prison, though was initially told he was too young to attempt it. He also completed a paralegal degree in 2007, and as of 2008 worked to help other inmates with their appeals. As of 2008, Phillip's declined to write a letter of apology to Clifton's family, saying they deserved an apology from him in person, as they would not be able to see his sincerity in a letter. Clifton's mother subsequently stated she had no interest in talking to him.
Sheriff Nat Glover, who originally advocated for Phillip's life-sentence, commenting in 2008
In 2002, an appeals court upheld Phillips's conviction. In December 2004, Melissa Phillips began to seek a new trial for her son, noting that his young age at the time of the murder should have carried more weight in his sentence. In 2005, new hearing dates were set for Phillips. In 2008, two of the officials most responsible for his sentence, States Attorney Harry Shorstein and Sheriff Nat Glover, admitted having second thoughts about giving a no-parole life sentence to a 14 year old. Shorstein said he regrets not offering Phillips a second-degree murder plea, which would have given the judge more discretion in sentencing, and has voiced his support for eventual clemency or parole for Phillips.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama ruled that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. In November 2015, Phillips' attorneys were considering Miller v. Alabama as a basis to file a re-sentencing hearing. In September 2016, Phillips' attorneys successfully appealed the court, and he was granted a new sentencing hearing, initially set for February 2017; sentencing was delayed until June 2017. At the hearing, Clifton's mother requested that his sentence be upheld. In November 2017, Phillips was re-sentenced to life in prison, but is eligible for re-sentencing again in 2023. In December 2019, the Florida First District Court of Appeal upheld the life sentence, saying it will be reviewed again and could be modified in 2023 "based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
In the media
In 1999, the murder was the subject of a documentary on 48 Hours titled "Why did Josh Kill?". The murder was featured on the season 2 premiere of Killer Kids in 2012. In 2018, Phillips was interviewed by British journalist Susanna Reid for the ITV documentary Children Who Kill. That same year, the murder and Phillips's trial were featured on an episode of the podcast Sword and Scale. The murder and Phillips' appeal were featured in two episodes of Morbid: A True Crime Podcast, released in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
- Too Young to Kill: 15 Shocking Crimes (documentary). E!. 2010.
- "Boy Grows Up In Prison After Killing Young Neighbor". WJXT. October 30, 2008. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019.
- Pinkham, Paul (November 2, 2008). "The Maddie Clifton Saga Her killer fights back tears when asked about Maddie and her family". The Florida Times-Union. Archived from the original on June 24, 2013.
- Schoettler, Jim; Sweeney, Kathleen (June 28, 2000). "Josh Phillips' father killed in wreck". The Florida Times-Union. Archived from the original on October 28, 2000. Retrieved February 10, 2016.
- "Legal assistant diploma". Archived from the original on December 21, 2013. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
- "Conviction, Sentence Upheld For Maddie's Killer". WJXT. February 6, 2002. Archived from the original on October 3, 2013.
- "Mother Of Convicted Killer Wants New Trial For Son". WJXT. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- "New Trial Sought In 1998 Slaying Of Maddie Clifton". WJXT. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- "Hearing Set On Retrial Of Maddie Clifton Murder". WJXT. November 10, 2005. Archived from the original on February 13, 2021.
- "Supreme Court ruling affects child killer's sentence". WJXT. June 25, 2012. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019.
- Manning, Samantha (November 3, 2015). "Maddie Clifton's family worries her killer could be set free". WJAX-TV. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019.
- "Maddie Clifton's killer to be resentenced in February". WJAX-TV. September 27, 2016. Archived from the original on August 5, 2020.
- "Resentencing of inmate convicted of murder at 14 delayed". WJAX-TV. January 18, 2017. Archived from the original on November 12, 2020.
- Kelly, Eileen (March 15, 2017). "Joshua Phillips due for new sentencing hearing in June for Maddie Clifton case". The Florida Times-Union. Archived from the original on October 24, 2020.
- Parenteau, Chris (August 10, 2017). "After 4-day hearing, Josh Phillips returning to prison". WJAX-TV. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019.
- "No. 1D17-5383" (PDF). Florida First District Court of Appeal. December 17, 2019. Retrieved February 14, 2021.
- "Why Did Josh Kill?, When A 'Good' Kid Commits A Brutal Crime". CBS News. October 7, 1999. Archived from the original on July 1, 2019.
- Patton, Charlie (October 7, 1999). "Maddie Clifton story examined on '48 Hours'". The Florida Times-Union. Archived from the original on November 7, 2015.
- Earle, Toby (February 15, 2018). "Children Who Kill: Susanna Reid meets notorious US criminal Joshua Phillips". Evening Standard. Archived from the original on February 13, 2021.
- "Sword and Scale Episode 112". Sword and Scale. April 14, 2018. Retrieved February 13, 2021.
- "Morbid: A True Crime Podcast: Episode 80: The Murder of Maddie Clifton "Mini" Morbid on Apple Podcasts". Apple Podcasts. Retrieved February 13, 2021.