Image: Joshua Phillips
AP
Joshua Phillips is shown when he was 14 in 1988, the same year he killed his 8-year-old neighbor. Now 23, Phillips is nearing the end of what could be the first of many decades behind bars after being sentenced to life in prison.
updated 12/8/2007 4:27:19 PM ET 2007-12-08T21:27:19

Every month or so, Missy Phillips makes a four-hour drive to visit her son in prison, refusing to accept that his fate has been sealed — and he will die behind bars.

Joshua, just 23, is serving a life-without-parole sentence in Florida for a ghastly crime — the bludgeoning and stabbing of his 8-year-old neighbor, Maddie Clifton. He’s nearing the end of what could be the first of many decades behind bars.

But his mother doesn’t see it that way.

“We talk in terms of when he gets out, not if,” Phillips says. “I have to keep some semblance of hope for both of us. I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I do believe that someday he will walk out of there. I can’t go the other way.”

Joshua Phillips was just 14 in November 1998 when Maddie, who lived across the street in Jacksonville, disappeared. He joined in the massive search for her. Police were even at his house for routine questioning. About a week later, Missy Phillips made a horrifying discovery: She noticed a wet spot near her son’s water bed, pulled aside the frame and saw Maddie’s feet.

Police said Joshua Phillips confessed, claiming he beat Maddie with a bat and repeatedly stabbed her in a panic to stop her screams after he accidentally hit her with a baseball. Prosecutors cast doubt on that story.

Phillips says she has repeatedly begged her son for an explanation, but has never received one.

“I used to plead, ’Josh, I found Maddie in our home. I think I deserve to know what happened,’ “ she says. “He won’t discuss it with me. I had to learn how to step back ... and say I may never know.”

Mother questions herself
Phillips, now 52, had done her own soul-searching over the years.

“I think every mother who has a tragedy of this magnitude — certainly early on, you question yourself: Did I miss something? Did I do something wrong?” she says. “Every mother who loves her child feels a responsibility. ... He’s told me more than once, ’It’s not anything you did or didn’t do.’ “

A year after the murder, Phillips says she approached Maddie Clifton’s mother and they have spoken several times.

And when Phillips’ husband, Steve, was killed in a car accident in 2000, the girl’s mother, Sheila, visited to offer her condolences. “She’s a kind person,” Phillips says.

Phillips has remarried — she met her British husband after he read about her son’s case on the Internet and she has taken his name, though she prefers not to make it public. She says she moved twice to stay anonymous as she presses for a new trial for her son, claiming his attorney was incompetent.

She maintains her son’s sentence is excessive.

“They should have some alternative way of dealing with juveniles in serious situations so they don’t get their lives thrown away,” she says. “That’s what the state says — my son’s life is worthless. Just throw away the key.”

'I'll' carry this with me until I die'
State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who prosecuted Joshua as an adult, says his case — and those of other juvenile lifers — should be reviewed at some point and the possibility of release considered if appropriate.

Phillips tries to be upbeat, but admits her resolve sometimes wavers.

“I’m human,” she says. “I have my moments, my worries and my doubts.”

As much as her son dominates her thoughts, she says when she sees a little girl with her family, she is haunted by memories of Maddie Clifton.

“Of course, I’m mindful of Maddie not being here,” she says. “As close as I am to this tragedy, I can’t say I know their pain anymore than they know mine. .. I think of them a lot. I think of Maddie a lot. ... I’ll carry this with me until I die.”

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