JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Joshua Phillips was a teenager when he was a convicted and sentenced to life in prison for beating and stabbing to death an 8-year-old girl who lived in his Florida neighborhood.
Nearly 20 years later, after new sentencing hearings, a Florida judge has concluded that he should remain behind bars for the rest of the life.
The Florida Times-Union reported Friday that Joshua Phillips, now 33, showed no reaction when Circuit Court Judge Waddell Wallace announced his sentence. Phillips went through a new sentencing because a series of U.S. Supreme Court and state rulings have mandated a second look at the punishment of juvenile offenders.
The murder of Maddie Clifton made headlines in 1999 and the publicity prompted the trial of Phillips to be moved from Jacksonville. The night Clifton disappeared, then-14 year-old Phillips grabbed a flashlight and joined in the search. For seven days, hundreds of volunteers scoured the children’s Jacksonville neighborhood.
All the while, Maddie’s body was slowly decomposing under a sheet of plywood supporting the frame of Joshua’s waterbed, 25 feet across the street from her home, authorities said.
Later he explained to investigators that he killed the girl after she was hurt playing baseball with him. He panicked at her screams and was scared his father would punish him so he beat her and later stabbed her when he heard her moaning.
Phillips was initially sentenced to life. But two U.S. Supreme Court rulings concluded that it’s unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences without a chance for parole on juveniles convicted of homicide. The justices ruled that such sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment and that courts must recognize teens’ incomplete brain development and potential for rehabilitation.
A Florida law passed three years ago said those terms are to be automatically reviewed by a circuit court judge after 15, 20 or 25 years served, depending on the crime. The state Supreme Court ruled that the reviews should be extended to former teen offenders who were already in prison before the law was changed.
The newspaper reported that Wallace called Phillips’ case “extraordinary.” In his sentencing order the judge said Phillips’ “cold and callous demeanor in hiding her decomposing body, represent a level of depravity that cannot be explained or attributed to immaturity, impetuosity or recklessness or headless risk taking.”