Huckaby will now spend the rest of her life in prison with no chance for parole. While she admits to the murder, she still insists she did not sexually assault the girl.
Perhaps befitting the nature of the crime, the climate in the courtroom Monday was highly-emotional. It was a chance for both families and Melissa Huckaby to make statements.
The moment was the culmination of a plea agreement reached in May, where Huckaby pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with a kidnapping enhancement. As part of the agreement, charges that she sexually assaulted and drugged Sandra were dropped.
Sandra Cantu's family spoke first and began by showing a video montage depicting the 2nd grader's life, first as a baby and then as a young girl. Huckaby began to cry during the video, as did most of her family seated behind her. That was followed by a succession of speakers including Huckaby herself.
She read from a statement aimed directly at Sandra Cantu's family, but especially her mother. She tearfully apologized for killing the little girl she claimed to love.
"I should not have taken Sandra from you. And, I want you to know that she did not suffer and I did not sexually molest your daughter. I loved Sandra a great deal," Huckaby said. "She was sweet. And, as a little girl, she did not deserve to have such a short life."
In their remarks, Sandra's family made sure Huckaby knew exactly what she cost them.
"You took the life of an innocent little girl and she didn't do nothing. She's not even old enough to decide to eat ice cream yet," said Sandra's father Daniel Cantu.
"The video of her skipping down the street will forever be etched into our minds," Sandra's aunt Angie Chavez said. "And, the pain of knowing she was so close to home and we couldn't protect her from Miss Huckaby is unimaginable."
"We won't see her grow up. We won't get to see her go to her first day of middle school. We won't be able to see her fall in love, get married, have children and grandchildren," she also lamented.
"Each time that I sit in this courtroom, I place myself on your side. And, I've felt your pain, and feeling your pain," said Huckaby's mother Judy Lawless, addressing most of her comments to Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez. "If I could give you justice, the justice that you deserve, that would be to have your baby girl in your arms right now."
Huckaby, the former Sunday school teacher and mother to Sandra's playmate, says she does not know why she did what she did.
"I still cannot understand why I did what I did. Every day I try to discover my motivation, but I still do not have an answer," she said. "This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life."
The various parties were speaking to each other but there was no eye contact in the courtroom as everyone was instructed to speak in the judge's direction. As such, Huckaby looked forward as she spoke, while both families sat behind her.
When Huckaby made her plea agreement in May, she did not wave her right to appeal her conviction or her sentence. At this point, however, there is no indication that she or her lawyers intend to do so.
In a seperate hearing Monday afternoon, a judge decided to unseal some documents in the case including the the grand jury transcripts, but that will not be done until Friday at the earliest. Sandra Cantu's family is also fighting the decision and hopes to have it delayed even further. Lawyers for the family have argued that the public already knows many horrendous details about the case and releasing any more would cause more trauma for them.
Nonetheless, the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office did release new and chilling details about the murder on Monday.
Investigators believe Sandra was dead of asphyxiation within 85 minutes of the moments seen in the previously-released surveillance video that shows her skipping in the mobile home park where she lived.
In a narrative released by District Attorney Thomas Testa, investigators describe finding a rolling pin with a "bent handle and a bloody smudge on it" inside the church where Huckaby's father Lane Lawless was pastor. The blood contained Sandra Cantu's DNA.
"Also in the church, investigators found all windows had blinds," reads the narrative. "They eventually determined one blind was missing part of its draw cord, which an FBI cordage expert determined to be consistent in every way to the cord used to tie shut the suitcase" that contained Sandra's body.
Testa says surveillance tape shows Huckaby leaving the church after about an hour and a half, returning 30 minutes later. During that time, Huckaby was spotted by a retired Marine and his wife at the pond where she dumped the body. When asked what she was doing there, she tells them she was urinating.
Cantu's body is found 10 days later in that pond, stuffed in the Eddie Bauer suitcase that Huckaby reported stolen from her home.
According to prosecutors, Sandra had a laceration to her lower inner lip and an abrasion to her left elbow. She was found with a piece of torn cloth tied around her head, soiled with blood and knotted into a noose.
The coroner determined that Sandra suffered "injuries to the external genitalia which were consistent with the diameter of the rolling pin handles" and listed the official cause of death as "homicidal asphyxiation."
Toxicology tests revealed Sandra's body also contained Alprazolam, a form of tranquilizer similar to Valium, as well as rubbing alcohol.
Prosecutors dispute Huckaby's claim that Sandra did not suffer.
"Given the trauma that Dr. O'Malley found and the instrument that was used, it's... Sadly to say, it's hard for me to believe that Sandra Cantu did not suffer," Testa said.