Sandra Cantu's Accused Killer Declines to Enter a Plea

April 14, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The charges were difficult for everyone in court to hear, including the defendant 28-year-old Melissa Huckaby -- a Sunday school teacher. She is the woman in Tracy accused of murder with special circumstances of kidnapping, rape, and other lewd and lascivious acts on 8-year-old Sandra Cantu.                  |   Watch Video Above for Extended Coverage   |

Melissa Huckaby was led into a San Joaquin County courtroom in a red jumpsuit and shackles for the afternoon arraignment.

She cried as a judge read the charge: one count of murder with the special circumstances of rape with a foreign object, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and murder in the course of a kidnapping.

She did not enter a plea.

The little girl's body was discovered last week in a Tracy irrigation pond. She was stuffed in a suitcase that Huckaby had told police was stolen from her.

Melissa Huckaby lived just five doors down from the Cantu family, and her 5-year-old daughter often played with Sandra.

The hearing lasted approximately four minutes and there were about 100 people in the courtroom. Family members from both sides were in there as well. There were tears on both sides and from the defendant.

"On or about March 27, 2009 the crime of murder in section 187 of the penal code of felony was committed by Melissa Huckaby," read Superior Court Judge Richard Vlaviano.

Murder defendant Melissa Huckaby began to sob as the judge read the charge against her in a Stockton courtroom, including the special circumstances.

"While said defendant was engaged in the commission, attempted commission, or attempted commission the crime of rape by instrument ... " read Superior Court Judge Vlaviano.

Huckaby, a single mother and Sunday school teacher, is now eligible for the death penalty if the district attorney decides to pursue it once the case goes to trial.

"Consistent with our policy with regard to the handling of all special circumstance murders, we will not make a decision about whether to seek death until we're further down the road in these proceedings," said James Willett, the San Joaquin County District Attorney.

Outside court, Huckaby's father Brian Lawless told ABC30 the allegations against her don't fit the daughter he knows.

Sandra Cantu's father, Daniel Cantu, said nothing to reporters as he left wearing a t-shirt with his daughter's picture on it. Sandra's aunt, uncle and other family members also left the courthouse without talking to reporters.

Among the spectators in the courtroom were several people who say they knew Sandra, the little girl with the bright smile who met her fate so close to home.

"Once I heard it was the lady that actually lived in the same place, in the same area, it just made me break down really bad," said Ericka Orozco from Tracy.

"I just probably would've asked her 'Why? Why did you do that to her? What was going through your mind? If you needed help why didn't you seek it?'" said Josie Orozco from Tracy.

Investigators are clearly not finished building their case against Huckaby. Within hours of her court appearance, Tracy evidence team executed two more search warrants. One at her home, and one at the church where she taught Sunday school.

Huckaby will be represented by a public defender. Someone in that office told ABC30 they will seek a gag order in this case, but they do not plan to seek a change of venue.

Legal experts say that of all the types of people law enforcement investigators could have suspected, Melissa Huckaby did not fit any such profile.

Public Service for Sandra Cantu:
Thursday, April 16, 2009
1 p.m. - People are asked to arrive early since there will be limited parking
Merrill F. West High School
1775 West Lowell Avenue
Tracy, CA

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