California Prosecutors Want to Force Plea on Accused Sandra Cantu Killer

Prosecutors want Sandra Cantu murder case to move forward.

April 20, 2009, 1:46 PM

June 10, 2009— -- Prosecutors say the former Sunday school teacher accused of raping and murdering 8-year-old Sandra Cantu has been given enough time to enter a plea.

Court documents filed Tuesday in San Joaquin Superior Court in Stockton, Calif., detail the prosecution's request for the court to enter a plea on behalf of Melissa Huckaby if she again refuses to enter a plea herself at Friday's hearing.

Huckaby has declined to enter a plea at three previous court hearings since her April 10 arrest, effectively freezing her case at the arraignment stage. Huckaby's public defender requested the latest continuation May 22 after the district attorney's office announced a slew of new charges, including the alleged poisonings of a 7-year-old child and an adult man.

Public defender Sam Behar told the judge last month that he had received 1,000 pages of evidence the day before his client's latest appearance and was not yet ready to move on to the next phase.

Behar told today that he had no response to the district attorney's motion.

Because two of Huckaby's alleged victims were children, Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, in requesting the court to force the defense to move forward, cited a California penal code provision that allowed the court to give preference to the victims if they were minors.

Once a plea is entered, the court can then schedule a preliminary hearing, something the district attorney's office requested in the same filing.

The primary and most damning charges against Huckaby involve the murder of Sandra Cantu, a second-grader whose body was found April 6 stuffed into a suitcase in an irrigation pond 10 days after she disappeared from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy, Calif.

The murder charge also included the special circumstances of kidnapping, lewd and lascivious acts with a child and rape with a foreign object, making her eligible for the death penalty, if convicted.

Huckaby, who lived with her grandparents and 5-year-old daughter, was a neighbor of Sandra's family in the mobile home park. Her grandfather is the pastor of a nearby church, which authorities searched in the days leading up to Huckaby's arrest.

Teen Alleges Huckaby Drugged Sister With Muscle Relaxants

The newest charges against Huckaby included felony child endangerment and "furnishing a harmful substance" in the case of a 7-year-old girl identified only as "Jane M. Doe."

She was also charged with "furnishing a harmful substance," either by food or drink, to a man named Daniel Plowman March 2, nearly three weeks before Sandra disappeared.

According to court documents released today, the charges allege that Huckaby "willfully and unlawfully mingled a harmful substance with food or drink" in both cases.

An 18-year-old woman, who declined to be identified, told ABC News in April that her 7-year-old sister went missing with Huckaby in January and came home drugged.

"Her speech was slurred ... like she had a really bad lisp," the woman said of her sister. "And she would cry a lot like something was wrong with her. She couldn't stand up without help. She couldn't walk. Every time she tried to walk, she would fall.

"So they took her to the hospital, and the hospital told us that she had muscle relaxants in her system," the teenager said.

The woman alleged last month that the death of Sandra Cantu might not have happened if detectives had taken her sister's case more seriously at the time.

Police have denied mishandling the case.

Everyone connected to the Huckaby case, including police, potential witnesses and lawyers and family members for both sides, have been silenced under a gag order. Autopsy results and most court motions also remain sealed, giving little information about what kind of evidence the state has against Huckaby or exactly how Sandra Cantu died.

Earlier this month, a worker on the dairy farm where Sandra's body was dumped was given $21,643 in reward money by the Modesto, Calif.-based Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, which was designated as the collection agency for reward money and donations in the case.

Twists in Cantu Case Keep Coming

Despite the gag order, other allegations have emerged about Huckaby since her arrest.

The Tracy Press, which helped break the investigation of Huckaby as a suspect, has reported that Huckaby is a "person of interest" in two 2007 arsons in La Palma, Calif., about 350 miles away from Tracy.

The court also canceled a hearing in April, originally requested by Huckaby's lawyers, to exhume Sandra's body for a second autopsy. The request was dropped last month and the prosecution's motion against the order sealed.

Public defender Peter Fox told the San Francisco Chronicle that the deputy public defender handling the case was told by the county's chief medical examiner that "the relevant samples" on which the defense would conduct independent tests to determine whether the girl had been raped "were preserved," and were not interred with the girl's body in a mausoleum.

"It will not be necessary to disturb the child's remains," Fox told the Chronicle. "From a human point of view, certainly, it's nice not to have to do that."

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