Maddie Clifton’s story: Her brutal murder revisited

Josh Phillip’s mother, Melissa Phillips, walked into his son’s air-freshened room to clean it and noticed a wet spot on the floor. Much to her shock and surprise, Melissa Phillips discovered young Maddie Clifton’s dead body under Josh’s bed. It had been seven days since her disappearance, and Josh had participated in searching for the missing girl. 

Melissa informed authorities of her discovery, leading to Josh’s arrest. Within hours, Josh admitted to the killing; he said that the fear of his father’s wrath pushed him to murder. 

After a short trial, a jury convicted Josh of first-degree murder. The court sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. 

Joshua Phillips allegedly murdered Maddie Clifton after he struck her with a baseball

Phillips alleged that Sheila knocked on his family’s door, asking to play baseball. His father, Steve Phillips, outlawed visitors at the house when he or Melissa wasn’t around. Therefore, Josh initially hesitated but eventually agreed to play. 

Maddie’s mother said she had no reason to be scared of Josh. Edwina Harris, a teacher at Josh’s school, described him as a popular boy who didn’t stand out. Maddie’s older sister described Phillips as a ‘pretty decent kid.’

Phillips said he panicked after striking Maddie in the eye with a baseball. He allegedly feared his father’s reaction to the crying and bleeding girl in his backyard. 

Josh had cause to fear his strict and violent father. He particularly despised the thought of Josh playing with girls younger than him. Melissa told News4Jax:

“I remember he didn’t have a fondness of little girls. I remember when I was pregnant, thinking, ‘Please let it be a boy, please let it be a boy.’ I wasn’t sure what it would be like if I’d had a girl, and that’s something that I haven’t really said to many people.”

Josh said that he took Maddie inside, but she continued screaming. He hit her with a baseball bat in the head and dragged her to his room. As his father arrived room, Josh heard Maddie moaning, so he pulled her out and stabbed her in the neck and chest.

Police said they found Maddie with her hand clutching the bed’s frame, indicating she was still alive when Joshua pushed her under the bed. 

Prosecutors contended that Josh’s story didn’t match the evidence at the scene

Josh’s father, Steve, directed his anger and grief towards Maddie’s family. Melissa didn’t understand why Steve seemed to blame them for Josh’s predicament. 

Prosecutors argued that the evidence didn’t support Josh’s version of events. There was no blood in the backyard or inside the house, which would have bolstered Josh’s claim that Maddie was injured outside. 

They said that the autopsy performed on Maddie’s body didn’t support the assertion that a baseball struck her in the eye. “There wasn’t physical evidence that really supported that,” prosecutor Jay Plotkin said. 

Josh said that he dragged Maddie from the backyard to his bedroom, but the lack of dirt on her body indicated otherwise. Prosecutors contended that Maddie wasn’t injured when she entered Josh’s room. 

Phillips said that Maddie’s underpants and shorts came off as he dragged her body. However, prosecutors believed that he had taken off her clothes. The autopsy showed no signs that Maddie had been violated, but the lack of clothes on her body waist down suggested that Josh harbored sinister motives. 

Melissa said that she always felt that Josh’s lawyer Richard Nichols didn’t put effort into her son’s defense. However, Steve insisted they follow his lead. Melissa said:

“Richard would say certain things, that he’d do this or do that, and in the 11th hour he wouldn’t do them. I would be angry about it, ‘I thought you’d do this, and that’s not helping Josh,’ and then Steve would tell me, ‘He’s the professional. He’s the lawyer, so just stay out of it.’” 

Nichols didn’t call a witness to testify on Josh’s behalf. Instead, he presented the following argument: “Joshua Phillips is not a monster but because of an act that began as an accident and deteriorated through panic that bordered on madness.”

With virtually no defense evidence to consider, the jury convicted Phillips in a little over two hours. 

Phillips apologized to Maddie’s family during his resentencing trial in 2017

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children should not qualify for mandatory life sentencing, providing an avenue for resentencing for convicts like Joshua. However, the top court said that judges could sentence juveniles to life in prison depending on the circumstances. 

Josh appeared before Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace III in 2017 for his resentencing trial. During the hearing, Phillips apologized to Maddie’s family:

“I don’t pretend to know or understand your pain or to grasp the void I created in your lives. I can say this, I do understand pain. I have become quite intimate with suffering. Growing up in prison, I’ve seen many dark things and I’ve been some dark places. Many times throughout this journey, I came close to ending my life, just to escape it all.”

Maddie’s family shared heart-wrenching impact statement during the trial. Judge Wallace said that the case’s circumstances justified the sentence handed down in 1999. “I believe this is one of the most rare and unusual crimes that warrants life in prison,” he said. 

Joshua applied for resentencing two years later. A psychologist testified that Phillips was genuinely remorseful for his crimes, and he’d rehabilitated. The expert added that his heinous crime wouldn’t affect his behavior if released into society. 

The judge upheld the conviction again and stated that Josh’s sentence would come up for review in 2023, 25 years into his sentence. 

The Clifton family had previously said that they empathized with the Phillips family. Melissa said she’d heard remarks blaming her and Steve for failing to find Maddie’s body sooner. She replied:

“There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me to notice. I came home from work that night; there was nothing wrong with my house.”

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