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Joshua Phillips: 14-Year-Old Murderer of Maddie Clifton

Antonia is a writer who is fascinated by mysteries and psychology. She writes many articles about criminal cases.

Was It an Accident or an Act of Murder?

It was November 3rd, 1998, when 8-year-old Maddie Clifton went missing in Jacksonville, Florida. When she was reported missing and police began searching for her, they started interviewing the neighbours. Almost immediately they had a neighbour in mind as a suspect. That neighbour had been arrested and charged more than 15 years earlier in two sexual battery cases, although both times the charges against him had been dropped. As it turned out, their suspect was the wrong man, but her murderer was indeed a neighbour.

Hidden Under the Bed for a Week

Hundreds of people would volunteer in the search for Maddie, scouring the woods and dumpsters around the neighbourhood. The search for Maddie would end a week after she first disappeared, but it wasn't searchers or police who found her body. It was Melissa Phillips, 14-year-old Joshua Phillips' mother, who found her. Thinking that her son's water bed appeared to be leaking, she went to inspect it and found Maddie Clifton's corpse hidden underneath. She ran out of the house and immediately went to the police.

She was a little girl who didn't deserve to die.

— Josh Phillips, six years later

Maddie's school photo.

Maddie's school photo.

Maddie's grave.

Maddie's grave.

What Happened and Why?

Josh Phillips was at school when the discovery was made, and that's where police arrested him. Everyone was completely shocked. The 14-year-old boy had absolutely no history of violence, and no one wanted to believe that he could be capable of murder, but he was.

Josh confessed to the police that he had murdered Maddie, but it started off with an accident, he said. Josh claimed that they had been playing together, and he had panicked after he accidentally hit Maddie in the head with a baseball. He carried her into the house, brought her into his bedroom and put her on the floor, where she began to make noise and cry. He said he was afraid of his dad's reaction if he found Maddie in the house. He was scared, and he didn't want to get in trouble for hurting her, so in a panic, he beat her with a baseball bat and stabbed her to keep her from screaming and crying. Police were able to retrieve both the bat and the knife used in the assault. He then hid her body under his bed.

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When asked years later how he could go on with his life with her body hidden in his bedroom, he said that he even though he made no conscious decision to, he just ignored it. He was in denial and he couldn't believe in the reality of it, so he lived in a fantasy world, like nothing had happened.

When asked why this happened, Josh says he doesn't really know, even to this day. Phillips has stated that if he could take it all back, he would.

Trial, Verdict, and Sentencing

Joshua Earl Patrick Phillips, at the age of 15, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 8-year-old neighbour and playmate, Madelyn Clifton. Due to the severity of the crime, he was charged and tried as an adult.

His trial was moved to a different county due to the flood of media coverage in the Jacksonville area. He was convicted of the first-degree murder, and on August 20th, 1999, he was sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole. He was not eligible for the death penalty in Florida because he was under the age of 16 at the time of the crime.

Updates Since the Trial

Since the trial, Maddie's parents have divorced, and Josh's father has died in a car accident. Josh, on the other hand, has been in the appeal process. In 2002, an appeals court upheld his original conviction. In late 2004, his mother, Melissa Phillips, began seeking a new trial. She believed that his age at the time of the murder should be taken into account in regards to his sentence. In the meantime, two of the officials who were involved in his sentencing have said they are having second thoughts.

In 2005, new hearing dates were set for Josh Phillips. Their goal is to at least have the charges reduced to second-degree murder, so that Josh might one day be eligible for parole. The U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in 2012 that sentencing juveniles to a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. However, in a new sentencing in 2017, a judge upheld Josh's life sentence. His 2020 appeal was also denied. Now in his 30s, Joshua Phillip is still in prison serving his life sentence today.

A photo taken of Joshua Phillips in prison in 2008, 10 years after the murder at 24 years of age.

A photo taken of Joshua Phillips in prison in 2008, 10 years after the murder at 24 years of age.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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