JOSHUA EARL PHILLIPS
"There should be a sensitivity
to the fact that a 14-year-old is not a little adult."
~Florida Governor Jeb Bush
On a typical 1998 November morning in a gentle, quiet neighborhood in the Lakewood section of Jacksonville, Florida, the world stopped rotating for two middle-class families. For the family on one side of the street, a horrific nightmare would come to a tragic close, and for the family on the other side, it was just the beginning.
That morning I decided to get a head start on helping my fourteen-year-old son Joshua to clean his room. His father and I had both been nagging him for weeks. Josh and his father left the house just after 7 am that morning and I had a few hours until I had to report to my job as a typesetter at a nearby printing company.
I walked into my son's room and shook my head at the mess, wondering where I was going to start. Indeed, if I was having difficulty, I realized how insurmountable a task it must have seemed to a teenaged boy.
As I pondered where to begin, I noticed a wet spot on the floor at the corner of Josh's softside waterbed and groaned, "Don't tell me that bed is leaking!" I touched the corner of the mattress and it was soaked. I decided to investigate the cause of the leak rather than tackle the cleaning. I needed to find out how bad the leak was; whether I'd need to drain the bed or not.
As I lifted the corner of the mattress, I noticed a white sock and figured it was one of Josh's, so I started to pull on it, but it wouldn't budge. I wondered how it got there in the first place, and now was puzzled as to why it wouldn't pull free.
About that time I noticed black electrical tape holding the black frame of the pedastal together and surmised the bed must have been leaking for quite some time and apparently Josh had attempted to hold it together with the tape so he wouldn't get into trouble.
The tape freely pulled away from the pedestal and the wood gave way just enough that I could at least see the sock better. I grabbed it, and this time, felt something else. I still had no idea what I was about to find, but needed more light, so I went to another room and retrieved a flashlight.
As I pulled the pedestal slightly away, the sock fell down and I felt something cold. At the same time, the beam of the flashlight showed me something I could never have been prepared to see. It could not be what I thought it was. Yet, somehow I knew exactly what I had found - the missing little girl from across the street.
I was in shock and my first thought was to call my husband at work to be with me. But he wasn't at his desk yet, and I could only leave a frantic message on his voice mail to call me immediately; that it was an emergency.
I paced the floor clutching the phone to my chest, willing it to ring. But it didn't. It seemed an eternity passed even as it seemed time stopped.
The police had been in our neighborhood for a week; ever since 8 year old Maddie Clifton disappeared. All I had to do was walk out my front door and get an officer to come back with me.
It seemed surreal walking out of my front door. What was I doing? I was about to implicate my own son in this horrifying discovery. As I walked down my driveway I glanced over at the Clifton's house and realized right then; at that very moment, they still had hope. But in a few moments, they would know their little girl was never coming home again. How could I do this?
I did find an officer right up the street, but could not even begin to verbalize what I thought I'd found in my own home. He called for detectives to meet us at the house, and they asked me to wait with another officer on my back porch.
I prayed and sobbed that what I thought I'd found was not true. But only a few moments later, my worst fears were confirmed. It was indeed, the body of Maddie Clifton under my son's waterbed. I wanted to die right on the spot. I prayed for it. There was no way I could face what lay ahead for my family.
I was taken down to the police station and missed the arrival of my husband, who'd gotten my message on the voice mail at his job and left immediately for home. They would not allow him to even drive down to our home. I'm not even sure if he ever even made it inside the house, before he, too, was driven to the police station.
I remember being curled in a fetal position in the police car. Intermittently I sobbed and then was quiet; trying to absorb what was happening. When it became too real, I sobbed some more.
Josh was in his geography class at school when he was called to the office where he was met by two detectives who took him to the police station. Fourteen years old and he was being arrested for suspicion of murder!
He was taken, alone, to a questioning room. Steve met with me for only a few moments before a detective came to take him to see Josh. They claimed the room was not large enough for us both to be there, and I was left behind, alone.
Steve asked Josh if he knew what he was there for, and Josh said he didn't. Steve then said, "Your mom found Maddie in your room."
The detectives questioned Josh, even after he'd asked his father in their presence if he needed a lawyer. Nothing Josh said was recorded or preserved in any way. He made a statement, but never signed a confession. He later told me he was questioned at least five times later, without his father present and before an attorney arrived.
It was undeniably, the longest day of my life. All I wanted to do was die and get out of it. The media went crazy upon the discovery of Maddie's body. The detectives called it an "open and shut case".
I had numerous questions, which remain unanswered to this very day. There were no obvious signs anywhere in this house that anything like a killing had occurred here.
Even as detectives "investigated" our home for a full week as a crime scene, they lied about "evidence." They said there was blood spattered on the ceiling fan in Josh's room, when I know there hadn't been. There was no blood on the floor. I would have noticed something like that! Also, I have a beagle; Josh's dog, who never alerted us to any thing wrong in that room or anywhere in the house, for that matter. This is a dog who can find a palmetto bug in its death throes behind the couch and won't leave it alone, yet he didn't show any signs of anything so terrible as I found.
Two days before I found Maddie, a cadaver dog was just outside Josh's opened bedroom window only a foot from the waterbed and it didn't alert to anything. Scent hounds that were brought in the night she disappeared never tracked her to our house.
And, the night before I found Maddie, at least half a dozen officers were in our home. They were searching every house in the neighborhood again. Ours had been searched three times previously. That night, I was at work, but Steve was here, and he told me that he'd been questioned for the very first time since Maddie's disappearance.
As he was being detained in the living room, there were officers in Josh's room; with the door closed. Every so often, the door would open, an officer would leave and go out the front door, and then return in a few moments. This went on for several minutes until they finally left, apparently satisfied that nothing was amiss. 12 hours later, I found Maddie's body.
Nobody ever answered any of the valid questions I had. All they cared was that the heat was off the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Virtually all of our family and friends found out about Josh's arrest via CNN or some other national news agency. His picture was plastered in newspapers and tv news screens all across America. And beyond.
Our local paper, The Florida Times Union even saw fit to publish photographs of our home, complete with the full address, along with a map of the neighborhood. I didn't get to even see Josh until late that night, after he'd been transported to the Juvenile Detention Center. They were not going to allow me to see him that night, but I told them I was not going anywhere until I saw my son.
His case was sent to the Grand Jury, although prosecutor State Attorney Harry Shorstein could have easily decided himself whether to charge Josh as an adult or not. The Grand Jury voted for adult sanctions and Josh was immediately placed in the pre-trial detention facility in an isolation cell, where he remained until his trial in August of 1999.
Our visits were for two hours on Thursdays and half an hour on Sundays, all via a phone. No contact visits were permitted at all. I ached to put my arms around him, but it would be months before I would do so.
Josh spent nearly 9 months in that cell. After his trial, he was sent to Sumter CI, where after only a couple of days, his life was threatened, and he was moved to Wakulla CI; 20 miles south of Tallahassee: A three and a half hour drive at the least from our home in Jacksonville.
There, at the age of 15, he was placed in an open bay dorm with 60 adult males.
Perhaps one of the worst things that parents can possibly face in this life is outliving their children. But what happens to the parents standing on the "other side"? It has been, and continues to be, a highly emotional journey down the darkest road one might imagine.
Judicial process is a shady and foreign arena of events rarely experienced by the everyday family. Politics come into focus in a way never before realized. Harry Shorstein made an off the cuff comment to a law professor at the University of Florida when questioned why he allowed Josh to be tried as an adult. His response: "It should never have been anything more than second-degree, but I couldn't take the political heat to do anything less than first."
Media feeding frenzies take away the remains of any semblance of privacy, citing the "public's right to know" with no regard to "innocent before proven guilty". Reporters race to be the first to print or air their stories, without checking sources; putting before the public a cascade of half-truths and second-and third-party opinions.
Of course, we see all these accounts on the news. We read about them in newspapers and magazines. But until you and your family are the subjects of these stories, such things slip through the cracks of day-to-day life. Until a terrible tragedy brings life to a screaming halt.
All loving parents have dreams for their children, and ultimately for themselves, as those dreams are realized. But for some families, those dreams come crashing to the ground, shattering into a million unrecognizable pieces. Trying to put those pieces of dreams back together for those families seems an insurmountable task with seemingly little in the way of help or resources to turn to.
Now, a little over six years later, I am still trying to assemble some of my life pieces back into some kind of recognizable shape. 18 months after Josh's arrest, my husband Steve was killed in a violent one car crash in Wakulla County; not far from the prison Josh was in at the time.
I was at our home in Jacksonville, checking on our home until we could figure out what to do. 4:30 in the morning, a Florida Highway Patrol Officer knocked on my door to inform me of my husband's death.
As shocked and devastated as I was, I knew I had to be the one to tell Josh. He could not find out through the news or any other way. But, the prison would not even allow me to tell him in person, saying they weren't set up for visitation on a weekday! I had to tell Josh over the phone; wanting so badly to put my arms around him and to be with him at this terrible time. I needed to feel his arms around me just as much as I needed to put mine around him. I tried everything to get Josh to be able to attend his father's memorial service, but that could not be arranged either.
There is no getting over a tragedy like this. There is only plowing through it somehow. My faith in God sustains me, but even so, there is always the ever present heartache of my son in prison for the rest of his life.
Not long ago, I finally made it to Maddie's gravesite. I'd wanted and needed, to go for a long time, but just never could bring myself to do it. A weatherworn teddy bear sat propped next to a vase of flowers, and I sat in the grass next to her. Leaves had blown across the flat stone, and I leaned to brush them away. It was wrenching to sit there, knowing that the body of a little girl rested there and that my son had something to do with that.
I may never really know what happened in my own home on that election day in November of 1998. All I know is that life as we knew it stopped for my family.
During part of psychological testing prior to his trial, Josh had to undergo some x-rays of his brain. One of them showed the presence of bilateral frontal lobe lesions. Lesions in that area of the brain directly affect a person's ability to understand future consequences of his or her actions, among other things. None of this ever made it to the jury's ears because the lawyer Steve and I went into debt for never did the job we paid him to do. He painted us one picture, and then in the 11th hour, turned around and did the exact opposite.
When the trial was over, Richard Nichols told us as we waited for Josh to be brought in for a brief visit, “I really dropped the ball on this. I’m sorry. Josh’s best chances won’t come from the direct appeals, but later, at the post-conviction relief phase. You’ll have to hire a lawyer to say I didn’t do my job, and I won’t stand in that person’s way.”
We’ll never know what Richard would have done at the post-conviction relief level, because he died after routine surgery a couple of years later.
After Josh's trial, we found out that the closing argument used at our son's trial had been used, also unsuccessfully, for another of Richard Nichols’ clients.
Some days I lose hope. Some days, the old anger returns and I begin writing letters and talking to people who may be in a position to help Josh.
The media made it virtually impossible for Josh to get a fair trial anywhere in this state. The trial was moved to Polk County, and the media then set up camp in THAT town, interviewing people who could conceivably become jurors in Josh's case!
I still remember the lines of cars driving up and down this little road; people getting out and taking pictures; the damage done to our home and to our vehicles. Tires were slashed, tail lights broken; the house was egged... dead animals, minus their heads, were tossed onto our front walk; our mail was stolen... I was afraid to be in my house and equally terrified to leave it.
I watched my dog carefully when he was out in the yard, frightened that someone might try to poison him because he was "that monster's" pet. Indeed, when Steve and I were taken to the police department that morning, no one was permitted to return to the house to get the dog, or our birds. When we were finally permitted to enter our home under police escort for clothing and personal items, we found the dog locked in the laundry room with no food or water for over 24 hours.
I kept a detailed journal that I developed into a book which can never be published because the state attorney's office is hiding behind the Son of Sam Law which states a person cannot profit from a crime. Well, I never committed a crime, but still cannot publish my story unless I am willing for the state to take the profits. The Son of Sam Law has been proven unconstitutional in New York and California, but it's taken to court on a case-by-case basis and I simply do not have the money necessary to take on the State of Florida. And they know it.
As Richard Nichols predicted in August of 1999, all of Josh’s direct appeals failed. Now, an attorney handling the post-conviction relief believes a full psychological work up is necessary and will cost between $3,000 and $6,000. And it's cost over $12,000 so far just for the research alone! If Josh is granted a new trial based on post-conviction relief, I wonder how I'll ever find the money necessary to have an attorney present the case.
You asked for my story. Here's part of it. It's a never-ending nightmare. As I said, there is no getting over, only, with God's help, through it. At some point every day I cry and then wonder how many times more I will feel this way.
Thank you again for your support in helping Josh. When his father died, I was so terrified about being solely responsible for Josh's future. It's so good to know there are so many people who don't even know us, who are ready, willing and able, to surround us and help hold us up. It's incredible.
Love & Deep Peace,
Josh Phillips August 1999
Josh Phillips at Hardee CI 2005
PHILLIPS FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM
JOSHUA IN THE DOC
JOSH PHILLIPS AND THE UNITED NATIONS
ACTION FOR JOSHUA PHILLIPS
CHILDREN IN FLORIDA SYSTEM
FLORIDA MOMS WITH CHILDREN IN PRISON
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