Don’t Trust the Neighbor: The Maddie Clifton Murder

In November 1998, the search for eight-year-old Maddie Clifton gripped the nation. The little girl mysteriously disappeared from her home in Jacksonville, Florida, and hundreds of volunteers spread out to look for her. Camera crews flocked to the scene, while her parents tried not to fall apart.

Maddie Clifton / Joshua Phillips / Joshua Phillips / Steve Clifton, Sheila Clifton, Jessica Clifton.
Source: YouTube

After a week of persistent effort, Maddie’s body was discovered in the most shocking of places. Just a few houses down from the Cliftons, 14-year-old Josh Phillips had been sleeping on top of the young girl’s corpse that he stashed under his bed after killing her. As the case unfolded, the truth was darker than everyone thought.

A Different Time

Born on June 17, 1990, Maddie Clifton lived in a quiet suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. She was raised in a safe neighborhood where everyone knew each other, and children roamed free outside after school. It was a time before fear blanketed the nation, so Maddie wasn’t confined to her backyard.

A portrait of Maddie Clifton.
Maddie Clifton. Source: YouTube

Maddie lived with her father Steve, mother Sheila, and 11-year-old sister Jessie. She usually came home from school, did her homework, and ran outside to get as much playtime in before it was time for dinner. The Cliftons always sat down for dinner together but not on November 3, 1998.

A Typical Day in the Neighborhood

It was a warm Tuesday in November 1998 when Maddie returned home from school. She practiced her piano until her mom came home, then she went outside to play. Maddie and her sister Jessie often played with the other neighborhood children, so it wasn’t unusual for her to approach other kids.

A dated video still of Maddie Clifton playing in her backyard.
Maddie Clifton. Source: YouTube

Although she was only eight, Maddie didn’t feel uncomfortable approaching her 14-year-old neighbor, Josh Phillips, who was playing baseball. She wanted to join him, but Josh was hesitant to agree. Maddie was still young, and he didn’t think she would be any good. Josh was also worried about getting in trouble.

New Kid on the Block

Josh Phillips was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but his parents relocated to Florida in the early ‘90s. His family moved into the house across from the Cliftons, and the families became well-acquainted with each other. But behind closed doors, Josh’s life wasn’t easy because his father was violent.

A dated picture of Josh Phillips in his bedroom.
Josh Phillips. Source: YouTube

His father, Steve Phillips, was incredibly strict and scary, especially when he drank. Steve had a short temper and would lash out at his wife, Melissa, and Josh. He didn’t like when the neighborhood children were in his house when he was not home, which is why Josh was hesitant to play with Maddie.

The Day Turned Dark

On the day Maddie asked to join him in baseball, Josh’s parents weren’t home. So, he agreed to play with her because they weren’t supposed to be back for a while. As fate would have it, Maddie’s freedom and Josh’s fear of abuse would clash in a deadly result.

A dated picture of Maddie / A mugshot of Josh.
Maddie Clifton, Josh Phillips. Source: Pinterest

As they were playing, Josh accidentally hit Maddie in the face with his ball. She cried out in pain, and he feared his parents would return and find out that he had broken the rules. Josh then dragged her into the house and hit her with a baseball bat to make her stop crying.

Where’s Maddie?

Maddie fell unconscious, and Josh thought she was dead, so he stuffed her body under his bed. Meanwhile, Sheila started calling Maddie and her sister to come home for dinner, but Maddie didn’t return, so she asked the neighbors if they had seen her daughter.

Maddie’s parents cry during a press conference in the neighborhood.
Steve Clifton, Sheila Clifton. Photo by Hope Kinchen

The neighbors helped Sheila look for Maddie for a while, but she was nowhere to be found. She started to panic, so Sheila called 911 and reported Maddie missing. The Cliftons were worried about their young daughter but tried not to fear the worst.

He Made a Mistake

When Josh’s father came home that evening, they talked before Josh returned to his room, where he found Maddie was still alive. She was moaning in pain, and he didn’t want his father to hear her. Instead of helping her, Josh removed the mattress and stabbed her.

A recent picture of Josh Phillips in court.
Josh Phillips. Photo by Bob Mack

Josh stabbed Maddie seven times and cut her throat before putting his water-filled mattress back on the frame. He didn’t know what to do with her body, so Josh left her there as she wasted away. He was terrified that his dad would find her.

The Search Begins

As soon as the sun rose the next morning, the search for Maddie began. Hundreds of volunteers from the neighborhood joined the search, and thousands of posters were passed around with a picture of the missing girl. People combed through the entire town, calling for Maddie.

A dated portrait of Maddie Clifton.
Maddie Clifton. Source: Facebook

The police brought in search dogs to help the volunteers search a larger area. Everyone from Maddie’s school and the neighborhood came out to aid the police, including the Phillips family. Josh’s parents felt terrible for the Cliftons, but little did they know Maddie wasn’t far away.

He Looked for Her

Josh was part of the search parties that looked for Maddie. He helped look through the neighborhood, knowing all the while that she was dead under his bed. He wanted to seem like a concerned neighbor when he was the one who caused the whole situation.

Onlookers, neighbors, and friends of the Clifton family react to Maddie’s death.
Photo by James Crichlow

He later stated, “I was putting myself in a fantasy world that nothing had happened. That was my defense mechanism for everything when I was a kid. I never made the decision to ignore it. I just did.” He was so used to pretending that he continued that with Maddie.

A Media Circus

Once the local news picked up the story of Maddie’s disappearance, it didn’t take long for it to spread across the nation. The small Florida suburb became the lifeblood of tabloids and news reports throughout the country, and everyone wondered what happened to her.

Jacksonville Sheriff officer holds a press conference.
Photo by John Pemberton

Over the next seven days, reports about the search continued to make headlines, but there were no answers. The Cliftons tried not to give up hope about finding their daughter and offered to give an interview in hopes that it would help.

A Devastating Discovery

A week after Maddie went missing, Sheila and Steve Clifton were finishing their interview to get more information about their daughter’s whereabouts. They cried and begged for Maddie to come home. Meanwhile, Melissa Phillips was across the street cleaning her son’s room.

An image of a neighbor handing out missing person posters to cars.
Photo by Jack Luedke

Melissa thought Josh’s waterbed was leaking, but she discovered something horrifying upon further inspection. When she looked under the bed, she found Maddie’s body. Melissa was in shock and ran outside to alert one of the officers in the neighborhood. She almost didn’t believe it was real.

Police Missed It

The police were stunned when Melissa told them about Maddie’s body. They had searched every house in the neighborhood, including the Phillips’ home, three times. They mistook the stench of the decaying corpse for the smell of the birds Josh kept as pets.

A picture of Maddie is broadcasted on local news television.
Source: YouTube

The FBI had even gotten involved because the local police failed to find anything. Her family offered $100,000 to anyone who could offer a lead. The police clearly didn’t look through the Phillips home hard enough because she wasn’t hidden well.

Arrested Within an Hour

Before murdering Maddie, Josh was an average student at A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology. However, within an hour of his mom’s findings, Josh was arrested at school and charged with first-degree murder. His classmates were in shock when the police showed up.

A mugshot of Josh Phillips then / A mugshot of Josh Phillips now.
Josh Phillips. Source: YouTube

He quickly became the focus of national news attention. No one in the neighborhood couldbelieve that Josh would brutally murder little Maddie. The Cliftons were devastated to find out that Maddie had been just a few feet away across the street.

Everyone Was in Disbelief

When the news broke, Josh’s principal said, “The students can’t fathom him doing something like this.” He had many friends and didn’t seem like an angry person in class. Josh was normally a nice person, and people in the tight-knit neighborhood wondered if he really killed her.

A dated picture of Josh with his big brother.
Source: YouTube

Due to everyone’s doubts, a judge ordered that the trial take place in a county halfway across the state to avoid a biased jury. If the jury was made up of community members, they might have felt bad for Josh and had difficulty convicting the teenager.

Tried as an Adult

On November 19, Josh was transferred from a juvenile detention center to the county jail after a grand jury announced he would be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. Although he was only 14, the nature of the crime was so brutal that the prosecution wanted the ultimate punishment.

Josh Phillips speaks during an interview from prison.
Josh Phillips. Source: YouTube

To make matters worse, Josh slept peacefully for a week while Maddie’s body wasted away right underneath him. A few months later, Maddie’s autopsy revealed that her cause of death was due to multiple skull fractures, but the stabbing contributed.

A Weak Defense

On July 6, 1999, Josh’s trial began. His defense attorney, Richard D. Nichols, didn’t put a single witness on the stand, choosing to argue that Josh was a scared kid acting in desperation. The prosecution said it was a risky and surprising move.

A photo of Josh and his lawyer during the trial.
Photo by John Pemberton

Nichols didn’t question Josh about the events leading up to the murder. The two only played chess during their meetings prior to the trial. It was as if his lawyer knew Josh would lose, so he didn’t bother to fight for a different sentence or truly defend Josh.

Questions About His Story

The prosecution disputed parts of Josh’s story. Josh said Maddie’s clothes came off her lower half when he dragged her inside, but the prosecution argued about the lack of dirt and dust found on her body. However, the autopsy didn’t reveal evidence of a sexual assault.

A photo of Josh Phillips standing in court.
Photo by Don Ray

Prosecutors noted that no blood was found in the backyard or on the baseball that hit Maddie. Josh told the police that he accidentally hit her in the eye with the ball, and she started bleeding. Therefore, the evidence did not support his version of the events.

Was Something Wrong With Him?

During the trial, the defense attempted to introduce Josh’s brain scans as evidence. Nichols argued that lesions found on Josh’s frontal lobe are associated with panic and impaired judgment. This would have meant that he wouldn’t have made the right decision in the stressful moment.

Maddie’s sister speaks during an interview.
Maddie’s sister. Source: YouTube

The prosecution wanted to introduce evidence that Josh watched adult videos and believed the murder was sexually motivated. However, the judge dismissed both pieces of evidence because they weren’t valid. Instead, the defense should have called an expert witness to talk about Josh’s brain.

His Dad Didn’t Support Him

Nichols’ defense strategy was weak because he didn’t use any witnesses. Melissa Phillips disagreed with him, but Steve Phillips told the lawyer to do as he pleased. Although Josh clearly did something wrong and deserved to go to jail, his father didn’t care what happened to him.

A photo of Josh’s parents waiting outside the courtroom.
Photo by John Pemberton

In Florida, first-degree murder at Josh’s age comes with an automatic life sentence. Therefore, his father wasn’t worried about his son’s fate even though his child would most likely spend his life in prison if his lawyer didn’t defend him well.

“Not a Monster”

In the defense’s closing statement, Nichols said Josh committed a monstrous act, but he was not a monster. He said that it began as an accident and “deteriorated through panic.” Nichols argued that Josh’s actions weren’t premeditated, so he shouldn’t get a life sentence.

An image of Josh during the trial.
Photo by John Pemberton

Nichols asked the jury to find Josh guilty of a lesser charge because he had not planned to kill Maddie that day. He asked that the jury consider manslaughter instead because Josh panicked and reacted out of fear rather than the desire to commit a heinous act.

A Quick Decision

The trial only lasted two days, and it took the jury two hours to come to a decision. They found Josh guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole at 15 years old. Like Maddie, Josh’s life was taken from him in an instant.

Josh Phillips is escorted from the courtroom after the verdict.
Photo by John L. White

Joshua never spoke during his trial because his lawyer advised his parents against it. He sat silently throughout the two days as his fate was decided for him. Unfortunately, seeking the harshest sentence didn’t help anyone, but it felt like vengeance.

No Closure

Josh began serving his life sentence, but the pain he caused the Clifton family continued. Despite his life sentence, there was no closure because it couldn’t bring their daughter back. Maddie’s parents dealt with their grief in different ways, which caused a rift.

Steve Clifton stands behind his wife and daughter during a press conference.
Steve Clifton, Sheila Clifton, Jessica Clifton. Photo by Don Ray

After meeting in high school and spending 30 years together, Steve and Sheila Clifton got a divorce in the fallout of the case. They couldn’t handle the trauma of what their daughter went through and the scars it left behind on their family.

His Father Died

A year after his trial, Josh’s father died in a car accident. He was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the vehicle when he crashed. Melissa Phillips make a request for Josh to attend the funeral, but it was denied.

Josh Phillips's father, Steve Phillips, wipes away a tear during the trial.
Photo by John Pemberton

We are sure Josh loved his father, but he probably thought his father was drinking and caused the crash. His dad didn’t seem to care when Josh was sent to prison and didn’t feel the lawyer was doing anything wrong by his son by not preparing witnesses.

Sentence Upheld

In 2002, Josh tried to appeal his sentence. He wanted to get his sentence commuted to have the option of parole or have it reduced. Josh believed he had ineffective counsel at his trial, and he wanted a second chance at a fair trial.

A picture of Josh sitting in court.
Photo by Bruce Lipsky

Unfortunately, the Second District Court of Appeals said life in prison is not a cruel or unusual punishment considering the brutality of his crime. He was about to turn 18, so Josh feared what would happen to him when he was transferred to the adult prison.

Getting an Education

As Josh was only 14 when he went to prison, he decided to finish his GED. He was initially told he couldn’t do it because he was too young, but he finished early. Josh then took college classes to earn his paralegal degree.

An image of Josh standing in court.
Photo Will Dickey

In 2007, Josh completed his degree and decided to use his knowledge to help other inmates appeal their cases. While what he did was horrible, Josh was remorseful for his actions and tried to better himself.

Apologizing to the Cliftons

Josh wasn’t allowed to speak at his trial, so he never got the opportunity to address the Clifton family. However, he was asked to write an apology letter. Josh declined to write to them, but not because he wasn’t sorry.

Sheila Clifton sits with family members during the resentencing hearing of Josh.
Photo Will Dickey

He wanted the opportunity to apologize to the Cliftons in person because he believed a letter wouldn’t properly convey his sincerity. Maddie’s mother refused because she never wanted to see Josh again after what he had put her family through, even if it was for an apology.

It Was Unconstitutional

In 2012, Joshua had been in prison for over a decade when the Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama ruled that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole was unconstitutional. Josh’s attorneys considered using this ruling in order to file a resentencing hearing.

An image of Josh Phillips in court.
Photo by John Pemberton

His attorneys worked hard, and he was granted a resentencing hearing based on the Supreme Court ruling. He was hopeful that his sentence would be reduced because he was just a young teenager when he committed the crime, and he didn’t have a sufficient defense.

He Had No Criminal History

While there is no denying that what Josh did was horrible and monstrous, he had no criminal history prior to the murder. His friends said they didn’t know a monster; they knew “the silly little boy.” He might not have had the best grades, but he didn’t cause trouble.

A portrait of Josh Phillips in prison.
Source: Pinterest

Josh wasn’t a loner, and his classmates liked him. His teachers said he was funny and made the other students laugh. People in the neighborhood knew Josh as the quiet kid who was kind to others, which is why it was hard to believe what he did.

Her Family Relived the Pain

In 2017, Josh was given a resentencing hearing, which would have allowed him to have a second chance. While it was a hopeful time for Josh, the Cliftons had to relive their daughter’s murder when the details were read in court.

Maddie Clifton's sister, Jessica, speaks during an interview.
Jessica Clifton. Source: YouTube

Maddie’s older sister, Jessie, was hearing the details for the first time. When the original trial took place, she wasn’t allowed in the courtroom because she was too young. At his resentencing, Jessie went through the emotions of losing her sister all over again.

Fearing He Would Get Out

Two decades after her sister was murdered, Jessica feared that Josh would get out of prison. During the hearing, she recounted the horrible details of Maddie’s horrific death. Jessie said she would continue to fight for Maddie even if his sentence was changed.

A dated portrait of Maddie Clifton.
Source: YouTube

However, the judge said that Josh would remain in prison for life based on his review of the case and evidence. The judge spoke for 30 minutes at the hearing saying that Josh lured Maddie that day, and he was calculated and cold. Again, Josh lost his appeal.

Addressing the Cliftons

Although Josh lost the appeal, he got a chance to address the Cliftons for the first time since 1999. He apologized to the family, stating how sorry he was and that he “doesn’t pretend to know or understand” the pain he created.

A still of Josh testifying in court.
Source: YouTube

Josh added, “I do understand pain. I have become quite intimate with suffering. Growing up in prison, I’ve seen many dark things and been to dark places. Many times, throughout this journey, I came close to ending my life, just to escape it all.” Jessica commended him for apologizing.

Exhausting His Options

As of 2020, Josh has exhausted his appeals. In 2019, the Florida appeals court once again upheld his life sentence. They said it could be reviewed in 2023 based on Josh’s maturity and rehabilitation. He then tried to appeal his case in the Florida Supreme Court.

A mugshot of Josh Phillips.
Source: Facebook

They turned down Josh’s request in June 2020 without an explanation. Today, Josh remains in prison, and there aren’t any signs that he will be able to change his sentence. He has expressed remorse for his crime, and that is all he can do.