"I should not have taken her from you," Melissa Huckaby says at her sentencing in Sandra Cantu's murder

By Howard Breuer
June 14, 2010 01:55 PM
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Credit: AP

Melissa Huckaby had tears, but no answers.

In a packed courtroom in Stockton, Calif., the former Sunday school teacher faced the family of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu and offered an apology on Monday.

“I should not have taken her from you,” said Huckaby at a sentencing hearing in which she received the expected life in prison without parole as part of a plea deal.

Sandra’s stunned family had waited more than a year to hear why the 29-year-old mom murdered her daughter s playmate and dumped her body in an irrigation pond.

“I owe you an explanation. But I still cannot understand why I did what I did,” she said. “I wish I can bring back Sandra, but I can’t.”

Although Huckaby was originally charged with also raping the girl, that criminal count was set aside as part of the plea deal.

“She did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her,” Huckaby said. Then, to the girl’s mother, she added: “I’m asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness. I can’t imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me.”

During the hearing, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Tom Testa revealed additional details about the case unknown until now because of a gag order and a seal on many documents.

The prosecutor said a piece of torn cloth had been tied around Cantu’s head. He said the cloth was soiled with blood and knotted into “a noose,” and the cause of death was determined to be “homicidal asphyxiation.”

Testa also played a video depicting Sandra’s short life, bringing many in the courtroom, including Huckaby, to tears.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Huckaby held her hands to her chin, wiping at puffy eyes, as she listened to the judge explain the sentence. She will begin her hard time in Valley State Prison.

Sandra was last seen alive March 27, 2009, near her home at the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park in Tracy. Her body was found 10 days later in a black suitcase in a nearby irrigation pond, and Huckaby was arrested after she admitted the suitcase was hers.