The surprise plea by Melissa Huckaby spares her the death penalty for murdering Sandra Cantu

By Howard Breuer
May 10, 2010 01:35 PM
Credit: AP

A Sunday school teacher accused of kidnapping, raping and killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu entered a surprise guilty plea to first-degree murder on Monday, sparing her the death penalty.

Melissa Huckaby, 29, of Tracy, Calif., is expected to be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As part of her plea in a Stockton court, all other charges – including rape, lewd acts with a child and poisoning another child and a man – have been dropped.

Because there will be no trial, the public may never get to hear why Huckaby attacked her daughter’s 8-year-old playmate and hid her body in a suitcase. Her ex-husband has said that Huckaby was a good mom to their 5-year-old daughter and didn’t seem capable of hurting anyone.

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Court officials and law enforcement have indicated Huckaby is mentally unstable. Huckaby reportedly attempted suicide by swallowing razor blades a couple of days after Cantu’s disappearance on March 27, 2009, from the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy.

During the plea hearing, prosecutor Thomas Testa told the judge he was concerned Huckaby might change her plea. “She appears extremely coherent today, but I just worry down the road,” Testa said.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus remarked that Huckaby “appears fine to me,” but asked Huckaby if she understood what was happening and if she’d recently changed her medication.

“No, I am currently stable on medication, thank you,” Huckaby said.

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Cantu’s relatives, who were in the courtroom to hear the plea, hugged each other outside and then left without commenting to reporters.

Huckaby, who was due only for a pretrial conference, entered the plea of guilty to murder with a special circumstance of kidnapping and was ordered back June 14 for sentencing.