Josh Phillips at 14
In November of 1998, I was living on the Kings Bay Navy Base in Georgia. It was about 38 miles outside of Jacksonville, Florida. The surrounding area was so small that the majority of news came from the media in Jacksonville. So when 8-year-old Maddie Clifton went missing in Jacksonville, it was nearly the only thing the news covered.
I was 20 when Maddie disappeared. I followed the coverage of what happened to her as closely as anyone else living in the area. Perhaps more so in some regards because she looked so much like a young foster girl who had lived with me since I was 16 or so. Her name was Amanda. I left home when I was 19 to live in another state and I felt incredibly conflicted about leaving little Amanda behind. However, she was in the foster care system and under my mom’s supervision, so I could not take her with me.
The search for Maddie lasted a week. It was intensive from the beginning. She seemed to have disappeared without a trace. It was truly baffling. The situation became even more confusing when a man named Larry Grisham – who had been charged in the past for two counts of sexual battery – failed a polygraph test. He was a neighbor of the family. Though he was arrested for sexual battery nearly 20 years prior, the charges had been dropped.
However, Grisham insisted he had nothing to do with Maddie’s disappearance. Volunteers and law enforcement searched fervently for Maddie. Among them was a fourteen year old boy who lived across the street from the family, Joshua Phillips.
A week after Maddie disappeared, Josh’s mother made a tragic and disturbing discovery. Upon investigating a foul smell in her son’s bedroom, she found Maddie’s concealed body. She immediately informed the police. Josh was removed from his school, arrested, and taken into custody.
Josh told the detectives that he accidentally hit Maddie with a baseball while the two were outside playing. He described his fear of his father’s reaction to what happened as motivating him to end the girl’s life when he realized she was still alive. When she began screaming, Josh reportedly hit her in the head repeatedly and then stabbed her.
The State Attorney’s Office of Jacksonville, led at the time by Harry Shorstein, decided to try Josh as an adult in the murder of Madelyn. The decision carried significant consequences as the eventual conviction, in 1999, resulted in Josh receiving the mandatory sentence of life without parole. This is the same sentence 13 year old Cristian Fernandez of Jacksonville, Florida faces. However, he was only 12 when charged.
Upon conviction, Josh entered the adult population of the prison when he was just 15 years old. Prior to the fateful day in November of 1998, Josh had no history of violent behavior.
Maddie’s mother originally believed that Josh’s sentence of life without parole was appropriate. However, over the years she experienced a change of heart. She told 48 Hours that Josh should perhaps, someday, be given a second chance.
Another person who has reflected upon Josh’s severe sentencing is former Jacksonville State Attorney Harry Shorstein. He has since stated that if he had to go back and prosecute Josh again, he would approach the matter differently, “creating at least the possibility of parole.” He credited advancements in scientific analysis pertaining to the maturation of the human brain, showing the brain of a child or teen is less mature when it comes to impulsive behavior than that of an adult.
While this statement is provocative, it leaves me wondering how he would have created such a possibility outside of some kind of plea agreement. The mandatory sentence for such a crime in Jacksonville was life without parole then and it remains that way now. This is one of the reasons the current State Attorney Angela Corey has come under fire with regard to Cristian’s case. She has made ambiguous and confusing statements to the media about not seeking life without parole for Cristian, despite charging him with two crimes that require such a penalty.
Jim Schoettler of the Florida Times Union erroneously printed that Corey would seek a lighter sentence if Cristian was convicted of murder and aggravated battery. To his credit, when Schoettler was confronted with having printed this misleading information, he removed it from the article.
Sometimes people compare Cristian’s case with Josh’s. I am never sure how comparable these two cases are. It is true that in both cases a juvenile was alleged to have perpetrated a crime. However, there is a two year difference between the two at the time of the offense. Additionally, Cristian and Josh came from markedly different backgrounds. Josh ensured Maddie’s death through his actions, while Cristian sought the help of his other when he realized the extent of his brother’s unjury. It was then Cristian’s mother who waited eight hours to seek treatment for her son – an action that could have meant the difference between life and death.
Despite the differences, I do not believe any child should face life without the possibility of parole.
Maybe juvenile cases should not be compared, but rather considered individually. Factors such as age, prior tendencies toward violence, amenability to rehabilitation, and others should play a role in both prosecution and sentencing.
When I review all of the information pertaining to Josh’s side of the story I first have to acknowledge that there is no justification for intentionally taking the life of another human being. That said, there is also no justification for taking a juvenile’s life (even in the form of the living death sentence known as life without parole) as a consequence for that action. There is no excuse for failing to try to rehabilitate children or teens whenever the possibility exists – no matter how remote.
Josh had tried to appeal his conviction without success. During a sometimes tearful interview with 48 Hours he seemed resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison. Josh has demonstrated his remorse and has gone so far as to say he may deserve to be in prison for life.
He has not received counseling in prison, though he has expressed an interest in uncovering all of the motivators that contributed to his decision-making the day he killed Maddie. Josh has been a model prisoner. He works in the prison environment, contributing to the quality of other prisoner’s lives through actions like giving advice as a law clerk.
Josh has said that though he does not know if he deserves a second chance in society, he wants it. His interviews are emotional and representative of a boy who has grown into a man under the watchful eye of the Florida correctional system.
Josh’s mother, Melissa, wrote periodically about experiences with Josh prior to the event that changed so many lives forever. She also wrote about life after Josh’s conviction. She talks about visiting Maddie’s grave and the emotional strength it took to go. She discussed visits to see Josh, and details how he had to be placed in protective custody for a time after his life was threatened. When her son was first placed in the prison environment she feared he would be raped. She talked about how the family lost Josh’s father to a car accident and how her son feared he might lose her as well. About one visit, she writes:
This day, I see the door open and Josh walks through. I cannot get over how he has grown and try to imagine what it would be like if he were still living at home with me. Well, most likely, at 21, he would be away at college and probably not living here now. Still, I try to imagine what it would be like to see him walk through the front door for a visit, and to walk through the house, stop to pat his beagle, Beau, and maybe decide to take a swim.
Instead, he is where he is. Wearing the same clothes every day, day in and day out. Sleeping on a metal cot with a thin, lumpy mattress and an even worse pillow. No privacy at all, ever, anywhere. Not even in the shower or when he must use the toilet. Always, on display. No private time available to do anything at all anywhere. He sometimes tells me he longs to just sit and soak in a tub, let alone get immersed in a pool or wade in the ocean and feel the sand between his feet. It’s been over six years since he last patted his dog. There are things he wants to talk about, but only very briefly, as it’s difficult to dwell upon a way of life he no longer has.
As sad and unsettling as Maddie’s murder is to all, the implications of this case are significant. Children are different than adults. Science proves it. We all know this fundamentally, without even needing brain imaging scans to confirm it. How do I know that we know this? Because we require teenagers to wait until they are a certain age to drive. We do not allow children or teenagers to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.
We do not give children or teenagers the opportunity to vote for the very people who may eventually make the decision to expose them to life without parole if they commit homicide. And how ironic is that? When you stop and think about it?
Nothing will ever end the pain of Maddie’s family. Josh’s family – particularly his mother – will hurt for the rest of their lives too. There will never be a single day in Josh’s life when he is able to go without thinking about that one day in November and the consequences of his actions. His life without parole sentence will never bring Maddie back either. It will not end anyone’s pain. It only serves to extend it because when people hold on to anger and blame it consumes them. Forgiveness is always the harder path to follow, but it is the only way to achieve true healing.
What if Josh could teach our society something about children who make the worst impulsive decisions possible? What if he could teach us all something even more profound than that?
Perhaps someone like Josh can teach our society what it means to show compassion and to embrace forgiveness as an alternative to vengeful punishments. Maybe we need to make it our business to find out.
Perhaps there is hope. In March of 2012, the Supreme Court heard arguments against the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. Will they decide that such a punishment truly is a violation of constitutional rights because it is cruel and unusual in the contexts of both juveniles and their punishment?
I sure hope so.