Caged Kids: Life Sentence

14-Year-Old Charged As An Adult For Killing His Playmate

Josh Phillips, 20, has spent a quarter of his life behind bars. And he will remain in prison until the day he dies.

Every week, for the last five years, Josh's mother, Missy, has visited her son at the Marion Correctional Facility in Lowell, Fla.

"I love my son. I want to support him. I miss him," says Missy to correspondent Peter Van Sant. "I see my son. I see a little boy that I saw grow up."

Maddie was just 8 years old when she vanished from her Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood in November 1998. 48 Hours was there as thousands of people searched for Maddie.

It took a week for Steve and Sheila Clifton to learn what happened to their daughter. Maddie had been right across the street. Her body was stuffed under 14-year-old Josh's waterbed.

Josh told police that while playing, he accidentally hit Maddie with a baseball. In a panic, Josh says he was afraid of getting in trouble, so he hit Maddie with a baseball bat and stabbed her to stop her screaming.

"Josh is a monster in my mind because normal people don't kill their playmates," says Steve Clifton.

Josh, who had no history of violence, was charged as an adult with murder. He was found guilty of murder in the first degree.

In the early '90s, most states (including Florida) changed their laws, making it easier to try juveniles as adults – and putting the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. It was in this climate in 1999 when Josh was sentenced to life without parole.

48 Hours interviewed the Cliftons a week after Josh was convicted. They believe that Josh deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"I don't know what should happen, but I'd like to get out," says Josh, then 15, before he was transferred to state prison.

Why did this happen? "I don't know," says Josh. "I don't think I have the answer … Maybe I should get some kind of counseling or something to find out what's wrong with me."

And after five years in prison, he still doesn't have the answer. But since he's been incarcerated, he hasn't had any rehabilitation to help him come to terms with why he murdered Maddie.

"I'm just sitting here, just sitting here doing stuff at work. That's all I do every day. I guess it will be like that pretty much until I die," says Josh.

"Maybe one day, he's going to realize the severity of how many people he affected by doing what he did," says Sheila Clifton, whose life has been dramatically changed since her daughter was murdered.

After 25 years of marriage, the Cliftons are now divorced.

"My husband, he was just so stricken with grief…We just went in totally different directions," says Sheila Clifton. "Watching her grow up, the dreams and the hopes that we had are gone, and that's a hard thing for a mom to accept."

"What I think is a little girl that didn't deserve to die. I try to think about what the hell was going through my head. I screwed up my life. I screwed up hers," says Josh. "She's not gonna have the chance to do anything. It's all because of me."

Florida Sen. Steven Geller may hold the key to Josh's future. "I believe in redemption. I believe that there needs to be a second chance," says Geller.

"We have to start recognizing that children are not just short adults. What happens if an 8-year-old shoots somebody? Do you put them in prison for the rest of their life? Under current Florida law, you can. I'm sorry. I think that's wrong."

Geller has introduced a bill that would make first-time violent juvenile offenders serving life sentences eligible for parole after eight years.

"Charles Manson gets the opportunity of parole. Why should this 14-year-old at the time of the act … why should they not have the opportunity for parole?" asks Geller.

For now though, prison, not parole, is Josh's reality. "Lately, the life sentence is just kinda hitting me," says Josh. "Every day, you see a big line in the medical for pills and stuff, and guys with the walkers and stuff, and I say that might be me in another 50 years."

Josh has done well in prison. Despite living in the general adult population since he was 15, Josh says he was never sexually assaulted or had any physical problems in prison. He's gone on to receive his high school diploma and now works as a law clerk advising fellow inmates.

"He wants to do well. He wants to make something of himself," says Josh's mother, Missy. "I believe he should have a second chance to get out one day."

Surprisingly, today, even Maddie's mother has had a change of heart. "I don't hate him. I hate what he did," says Sheila Clifton. "Being put away in prison for life, I can't imagine. I don't think any child should have to suffer that."

"I don't think it's appropriate to lock them up and throw away the key," says Sen. Geller.

Just last week, Florida's conservative Gov. Jeb Bush said he is seriously considering supporting Geller's bill. But if the bill passes, it may affect only future cases, meaning Josh's life sentence would remain.

But what would Josh do if he had a second chance?

"If I got out, I'd owe the world a lot," says Josh. "I'd try to do whatever I could to repay them. I don't know if I deserve a second chance or not, but I know I want the chance."