Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Emotions Run High during Phillips' Re-Sentencing Hearing; One Woman Cries So Loud, She Has to Leave the Courtroom

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Emotions Run High during Phillips' Re-Sentencing Hearing; One Woman Cries So Loud, She Has to Leave the Courtroom

Article excerpt

Byline: Eileen Kelley

His voice cracked under the weight of all the emotions.

For 45 minutes Monday, Bernie de la Rionda, an experienced assistant state attorney who's been tasked with handling some of the most serious murders over the last 25 years, delivered an opening statement - in the re-sentencing hearing of a 14-year-old who killed his 8-year-old neighbor Maddie Clifton in 1998 - full of passion and emotion. Sometimes his voice cracked. Other times it boomed.

Child killer Joshua Phillips, now 33, bowed his head as de le Rionda outlined the horrific nature of his crime: A little neighbor girl all of 55 pounds was stripped of her clothes, save for her T-shirt and white sock,s and was beaten with a bat in Phillips' room. He then stuffed her under his water bed. When that didn't kill her, Phillips dragged her out, and plunged a knife into her neck and chest.

With Maddie again entombed under the bed, Phillips turned to his computer and watched porn. He slept on that bed for the full week the region searched frantically for the little girl.

Those details were too much for one court-room spectator Monday, a woman whose cries became so loud she needed to exit the courtroom in Duval County.

Phillips was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1999 and was automatically sentenced to life in prison.

But much has changed since then.

Scientific studies on brain development have led to many people making an about-face on their tough on crime at any costs attitudes, including former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who will testify on behalf of Phillips later this week when he is expected to say had he known then what he knows now on brain development, he never would have sought a first-degree murder conviction.

Conversely, Shorstein's second chair in Phillips' trial, Jay Plotkin, will testify for the state later this week.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have weighed in on the matter and it is no longer lawful to automatically sentence juvenile killers to life behind bars. Life terms are still allowed, but only for the worst of the worst. State law mandates the minimum sentence Phillips can get - that law is being challenged - is 40 years, but his case will be reviewed again 25 years after the crime, de la Rionda said.

That means regardless of whether Phillips is sentenced to life or 40 years, in six years' time, his case will be up for review again, de la Rionda said. It's unlikely Judge Waddell Wallace will make a decision Thursday, when de la Rionda is expected to wrap up the state's case.

The prosecutor portrayed Phillips as the worst.

He described Phillips as a teen obsessed with Maddie's older sister, Jessie. He also told the judge investigators learned Phillips had books on devil worship in his room. …

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