Joshua Phillips was a teenager when he murdered 8-year-old Maddie Clifton, also known as Madelyn Rae Clifton, then hid her body inside the frame of his waterbed at his home in Jacksonville, Florida.
It was Election Day, Nov. 3, 1998, when Maddie’s mother, Sheila Clifton, left their home in the Lakewood neighborhood to vote.
When she returned, her daughter jolted past her and said she was going outside to play with the other children in the neighborhood, according to The Florida-Times Union.
When Maddie, a third-grade student at San Jose Catholic School, failed to return home for dinner that evening, Sheila reported her missing, which engendered a massive city-wide search.
More than 1,000 people searched the surrounding areas and passed out flyers in an effort to help locate her. The US Army Reserve said they conducted a “hard search” that entailed looking through opened manholes and culverts.
Three days after Maddie’s disappearance, her parents held a news conference where they begged for her safe return and offered a $50,000 reward.
“Maddie, if you are out there and you can hear us, we are ready for you to come back home,” Sheila said through tears. “Maddie is a very strong little girl, she is full of love. Maddie, please come home.”
Police questioned one neighbor, Larry Grisham, more than 20 times and searched his home nine times after learning he was the last person to see Maddie.
It was reported that Maddie was seen hitting golf balls with Grisham in another neighbor’s yard. And she was last seen walking in the direction of her house, presumably on her way to collect more balls, but she never made it home.
Grisham claimed that police considered him a suspect in the case because of the following reasons: he failed a polygraph test, he often played with children, and he had a criminal record that involved driving under the influence and auto theft.
He submitted DNA samples, but that was superfluous, as he was ultimately eliminated as a suspect when Maddie was found dead.
On Nov. 10, 1998, Maddie’s body was found inside the bedroom of her then-14-year-old neighbor, Phillips, who lived across the street.
Phillips’ mother, Missy Phillips, found Maddie’s decomposing body inside the frame of his waterbed.
While police officers searched her home, they noticed there was a foul odor combined with deodorizer permeating the air. When questioned about it, Missy assured them that it was from their pets.
When they left, she realized the smell was emanating from her son’s bedroom. Therefore, she went into his room. That’s when she saw the air fresheners on the nightstand and burned incense.
Just as Missy was about to clean his room, she looked at Joshua’s waterbed and noticed that there was liquid exuding from beneath it. After removing the frame, a pair of feet popped out and reportedly struck her on her hand.
Missy was in disbelief. She said, “This can’t be what I think it is. It just cannot be.”
She then went outside and notified a police officer, who was patrolling the area at that time, that there was a body in the frame of her son’s waterbed.
The body was later identified as Maddie’s.
Maddie was found naked from the waist down, but police said she had on socks. Her shorts and undergarments were found near her body.
According to a report from the Tampa Bay Times in 1998, Duval County Sheriff Nat Glover stated that “her body was securely entombed in the casement of that water bed.”
Phillips, who did not have a criminal record at the time or behavioral issues, was arrested at A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology, where he was a “C” average student.
He was booked into the Duval County Juvenile Detention Center on charges of second-degree murder.
Within hours of being in police custody, Phillips confessed to killing Maddie.
He told detectives that while his parents were away, Maddie asked him if he could play baseball with her. Although he wasn’t allowed to have friends over, Phillips agreed.
As they were playing in the backyard, he said he accidentally hit her in the eye with the ball, and it started to bleed. She cried and screamed, so he took her inside his house.
Maddie continued to cry and scream in his bedroom, and Phillips knew his father would be home soon, so to silence her, he beat her on the head with a baseball bat.
When he thought she was dead, Phillips hid her under his bed. Not long after, his father, Steve Phillips, arrived. That’s when he left his bedroom to greet him.
As he was talking to his father, Phillips said he could hear Maddie moaning in the bedroom, which prompted him to grab a knife, return to the room, and repeatedly stab her until the noises stopped.
Later that evening, Phillips grabbed a flashlight and joined others who were out searching for Maddie and praying for her safe return.
Phillips told investigators that he killed Maddie because he feared his father, who was purportedly abusive, would punish him for hitting her with a baseball.
In 2000, Steve passed away at the age of 50, following a single-vehicle crash near Tallahassee, Florida.
At a news conference, Glover stated that the Leatherman knife that was used in Maddie’s killing had been recovered. They also found the bat—it was hidden behind Phillips’ dresser.
An autopsy showed that Maddie was beaten on the head with an object and stabbed 11 times: nine times in the chest and twice in the neck.
She was not sexually assaulted, according to the medical examiner.
Glover stated that Maddie considered Phillips a “playmate and friend.”
“There was no indication she had any reason to be afraid or had any apprehension to go with him.”
After Phillips’ arrest, police officers searched his room and discovered a missing person flier with Maddie’s information on it.
They also found a picture of her sister, Jessica, that had been reported stolen by their father.
Rick Seibler, chief of detectives for the Sheriff’s Office, said: “There was some infatuation on his part with Jessica.”
Grisham stated that about a month before Maddie went missing, she told him that her parents no longer wanted Phillips at their house because he had snuck into Jessica’s bedroom.
On Nov. 17, 1998, State Attorney Harry Shorstein announced that Phillips would be tried as an adult, which is what they were hoping for, so that he could get the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole if convicted.
Had he been tried as a juvenile, he could have reportedly been released at age 19.
Phillips was later moved from the Duval County Juvenile Detention Center to the juvenile section of the Duval County Jail as he awaited trial.
The trial was held in another city, Bartow, Florida, due to Maddie’s murder case being heavily covered in the media.
After entering a not guilty plea at the Duval County Courthouse, Phillips’ trial began in July 1999 at the Polk County Courthouse.
The trial lasted two days.
On July 8, 1999, a jury deliberated for over two hours before finding Phillips guilty of first-degree murder.
He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In August 2017, his case made its way back to the 4th Judicial Circuit of the U.S. Supreme Court for a second look, as mandatory life sentences without parole are now deemed unlawful for juveniles.
The Florida-Times Union reported that “the undeveloped adolescent brain can make a person irrational and impulsive.”
At his re-sentencing at the Duval County Courthouse, Phillips took the stand and apologized to Maddie’s family.
He said, “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 [in] some dark places.”
“I had no clue what life meant, what death meant, or the depths of suffering that would follow one act. I had no inkling of how long-suffering could last. I have lived long enough to understand what really suffering was.”
“I did something horrible and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” Phillips added. “Even now, after all these years, it is just so unfathomable that all this could have occurred. It tears my mind to know that I stole such a precious life from you — from the world. I wish I could take away your pain.”
Judge Waddell Wallace said, “It is appropriate to impose a life sentence in a case that’s a truly unusual case… Irredeemable depravity or the worst of the worse or circumstances that are truly unique and different from the ordinary. I believe this is one of the [SIC] most rare and unusual crimes that warrant life in prison.”
Three years later, on Jan. 7, 2020, Phillips filed an appeal with the Duval County Clerk of Courts.
He argued that his “life sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because he has proven himself to be neither incorrigible, irredeemable, nor irreparably corrupt.”
Phillips, who has an above-average IQ, also added that since being incarcerated for more than 20 years, he had matured. He obtained his high school diploma as well as a legal assistant/law clerk diploma.
Despite his efforts, the Florida Supreme Court turned down his appeal, according to Action News Jax.
No explanation was given as to why his life sentence was upheld.