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With her young son in prison for life, a mother tries to hope

December 30, 2007|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press

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

Joshua, 23, is serving a life-without-parole sentence in Florida for a ghastly crime: the fatal 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."

Joshua Phillips was just 14 in November 1998 when Maddie, who lived across the street in Jacksonville, disappeared. He joined the massive search for her. 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 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. "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."

Phillips, now 52, has done her own soul-searching.

"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. ". . . 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, since then, they have spoken several times. When Phillips' husband, Steve, was killed in a car accident in 2000, the girl's mother, Sheila, visited to offer condolences.

Phillips has remarried; she met her British husband after he read about her son's case on the Internet. She has taken his name but prefers not to make it public. She says she has moved twice to stay anonymous as she presses for a new trial for her son, contending that his attorney was incompetent. She maintains her son's sentence is excessive.

"They should have some alternative way of dealing with juveniles . . . so they don't get their lives thrown away," she says. "That's what the state says -- my son's life is worthless."

As much as her son dominates her thoughts, Phillips 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 any more 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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