This is the fourth child killer that I have written about, the first three being Mary Bell, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, although Venables and Thompson were partners in their crime. The idea of a child killing is always horrifying, whether it is school shootings, gang murders involving young members or a sinister murder just like this subject Joshua “Josh” Earl Patrick Phillips, who was just 14-years-old when he killed his 8-year-old neighbour.
Phillips was born on 17th March 1984 in Jacksonville, Florida. Phillips spoke after his arrest to several journalists and documentary makers and in one documentary called Too Young to Kill: 15 Shocking Crimes, he spoke about his abusive childhood, he recalled that his father Steve Phillips was a drug addict and an alcoholic who stood at a massive 6ft 6in, he would dominate his wife,Melissa Phillips and their son with his violent temper, one incident that left Phillips terrified was when as a child he walked into his parent’s room to see his father’s fist smash through a wall.
On 3rd November 1998, Phillips’ 8-year-old neighbour Maddie Clifton disappeared, initially the suspicion fell on a local sex offender Larry Grisham, Grisham had previously been arrested twice for sexual battery between 15 and 20 years before, with charges dropped. Grisham was questioned about Maddie’s disappearance and given a lie detector test,which he failed, but he managed to provide an alibi.
The initial search for Maddie was called off, but her local community of 400 volunteers kept searching with rewards of $50,000 being offered and then doubled. Chillingly, Phillips joined the volunteer search to find Maddie, when he knew where she was all along. The case kept growing and the FBI got involved in the investigation and Maddie’s face was spread wider through flyers distributed at a Jaguars-Bengals game and America’s Most Wanted offered to broadcast Maddie’s story.
The search for Maddie was called off a week after she disappeared when her body was discovered. Phillips’ mother was cleaning her son’s room on the afternoon of 10th November 1998 and noticed that her son’s waterbed seemed to have a leak, she examined it further and discovered Maddie’s body hidden in the base. She ran across the street where the police were at the Clifton residence and alerted them to the discovery.
Phillips was at school when his mother found Maddie, so the police went and arrested him there. Maddie’s cause of death was determined as stabbing and clubbing with a baseball bat. Phillips said Maddie’s death happened one afternoon while he was home alone, he said Maddie had come to his house to ask him if he wanted to play baseball, Phillips agreed to go even though he was not allowed to have friends over while his parents weren’t home. The two children started playing baseball outside when Maddie threw the ball at him and he hit it, the ball struck Maddie’s eye causing it to bleed while she screamed and cried. Phillips started to panic and said he feared what his father’s reaction to the incident would be, so he dragged Maddie into his house and then into his room to strangle her with a phone cord, he did this for 15 minutes then hit her with a baseball bat and stuffed her under his bed. Phillips’ father returned home, and Phillips interacted with his father briefly then returned to his room, he found that despite his attack Maddie was still alive and moaning in pain, he then removed his mattress and stabbed her 11 times, this is what eventually killed her, the autopsy done on Maddie did not reveal any signs of rape, but her body was found nude from the waist down.
Phillips was charged with first-degree murder and his trial was then held in Polk county, as the media coverage became overwhelming. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibly of parole. He missed the death penalty as he was 16, and minors were not eligible for the death penalty under Florida’s law at the time.
Further speaking to Phillips after the murder, he says that the crime was motivated by the fear Phillips had of his father, he said that his father would have been angry to find an injured Maddie in their house. Phillips has expressed remorse since his imprisonment, he once said in the documentary Too Young to Kill he would take it all back if he could and proceeded to break down in tears.
Phillips’conviction was upheld in appeals court in 2002, but in December 2004, Melissa Phillips began to research the process of a re-trial for her son, she noted that his young age at the time of the murder should have had more of an influence on Phillips’ sentence, and then in 2005 new hearing dates were set. Two officials behind Phillips’ sentence, State Attorney Harry Shorstein and Sheriff Nat Glover did say in 2008 that although Phillips did deserve a jail sentence, they were having second thoughts about the life sentence without parole.
New laws in Florida came in 2012, and the U.S. supreme court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional, but at the time it was unclear whether Phillips would get his attorney to seek a re-sentencing. It wasn’t until November 2015 that a re-sentencing hearing was filed, and it was based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. The attorneys successfully appealed to the court in September 2016, and Phillips was granted a new sentencing hearing as a result of retroactive application of the Supreme Court’s ruling, which declared his current sentencing as unconstitutional. A re sentencing was then arranged for February 2017, but when it came Phillips’ attorney requested more time to prepare so the new sentencing was moved to June 2017. Maddie’s mother attended the hearing and requested that his sentence be upheld, Phillips was then re-sentenced to life in prison, he will be eligible for a sentencing review in 2023.
While in prison he seems to have improved himself also, he attended Blackstone Career Institute, a distance learning program. Phillips has managed to graduate with a paralegal degree in 2007 and now works as a paralegal in prison, helping other inmates with their appeals.
Phillips doesn’t seem to be a budding serial killer in the way that Mary Bell or Jon Venables were, he committed and awful crime, but I think it shows how much of a motivator fear can be. In the moment he injured Maddie he could only see what he thought his father’s reaction would be and this terrified him and as a result his judgement was clouded, being a scared 14-year-old boy, the only answer was to make sure Maddie could never tell her parents or his father. I don’t believe Phillips is directly dangerous, but he could be pushed into doing something as detrimental as murder, prison was/is the best place for him it seems to have been beneficial for him being away and safe from his abusive father.
Can someone ever move on from committing such an awful crime? nothing indicated that Maddie’s murder was premeditated, and no evidence was found that indicated that Phillips had a prior unhealthy interest in violence or murder, so now that he is an adult and grown up showing all the signs that he has “bettered” himself should he be eligible for release? When I look over this,I just think of poor Maddie who hasn’t had a chance to grow up, in prison or not and the loss of their daughter caused her parents Steve and Sheila Clifton to divorce after 25 years of marriage, the murder clearly turned their lives upside down and they’re the ones serving a life sentence.
Should Phillips be released? like I said Maddie’s parents are the ones serving a real life sentence, and he’s been in the prison system since he was 14, he is now 34-years-old, that’s 20 years of prison routine, could he really live on the outside? there must be an element of institutionalisation by now, so he may never be able to function on the outside.