Murder Charges Filed in Sandra Cantu Case

rosecutors Claim Melissa Huckaby Raped, Killed 8-Year-Old Neighbor

ByABC News
April 14, 2009, 3:42 PM

April 14, 2009— -- A Northern California woman raped and murdered an 8-year-old girl and stuffed her body in a suitcase that was dumped in an irrigation pond, prosecutors claimed today.

San Joaquin County, Calif., prosecutors filed murder charges today against Melissa Huckaby, 28, in the death of Sandra Cantu, Huckaby's neighbor in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park.

With her family and Cantu's family looking on, Huckaby, a volunteer Sunday school teacher, cried at her arraignment as the judge read the charge against her: 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 reacted the most strongly when the rape allegation was read, closing her eyes and choking back a sob. After the brief hearing, Huckaby was taken back to the San Joaquin County jail, where she remains on suicide watch.

She was scheduled to return to court April 24, when she is expected to enter a formal plea.

The special circumstances mean that Huckaby, if convicted, could face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors have reportedly said they have not decided whether they will ask for the death penalty.

Huckaby's attorney requested a gag order in the case, which will be considered at the April 24 hearing.

Tracy police Sgt. Tony Sheneman said search warrants were served today and items were removed from the Clove Road Baptist Church, where Huckaby volunteered as a Sunday school teacher, and also from the mobile home of Huckaby's grandparents,Clove Road Baptist Church Pastor Lane and Connie Lawless, where Huckaby was staying.

He said he could not reveal any other details about the searches.

After today's hearing, both families were led out of the courtroom separately. When Huckaby's father, Brian Lawless, was asked if he thought his daughter was innocent, he replied, "yes" and said he was "shocked" at the charges.