Judge refuses to unseal documents in Cantu case

Melissa Huckaby listens during her arraignment, Tuesday, April 14, 2009. (AP Photo)

May 24, 2010 6:44:40 PM PDT
A Stockton judge denied a request from several media organizations to unseal documents related to the murder of 8-year-old Tracy girl Sandra Cantu. Former Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby pleaded guilty May 10 to the kidnap and murder of Cantu, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase in a drainage canal last year.

"The case is not over, a defendant can withdraw a plea," Judge Linda Lofthus said in making her ruling. "The defendant's right to a fair trial outweighs the public's right to know details."

Cantu's mother Maria Chavez sent a letter to the court, asking that grand jury transcripts, warrants and other documents related to her daughter's murder be sealed indefinitely.

In court, Chavez' attorney Archer Bakerink told the judge, "Maria has no desire to know more than she knows now."

Bakerink and other attorneys for the family cited Marsy's Law, passed in 2008 by the voters, designed to protect the rights of victims and their families.

Duffy Carolan represents the three media organizations that filed the motion, including the Associated Press, Stockton Record and the Bay Area News Group. In court, Carolan argued, "Here, because there is no public trial, it's important for the public to have information about the manner of death and the motive."

Huckaby pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Huckaby was also originally charged with drugging and sexually assaulting the 2nd grader. Under the plea agreement, those charges were dropped and prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Formal sentencing is set for June 14. At that time, Lofthus said she would reconsider the motion to unseal documents in the case, as well as the gag order preventing attorneys, witnesses and other parties from speaking to the press.