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Emotions run high during murder & rape arraignment
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Susan Levy of the Sund-Carrington Foundation places a caring hand on the shoulder of a distraught uncle, Joe Chavez, as she escorts him and his wife Angie across a Weber Avenue intersection to their car after they left Tuesday’s tearful arraignment. - photo by GLENN KAHL
Charges of murder and rape with a foreign object of 8-year-old Tracy resident Sandra Cantu, devastated not only the woman defendant but also the families, friends and neighbors in a Stockton courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, erupted in tears that streamed down her face pooling at the base of her cheeks.  The woman was visibly shaking; as the formal charges were read against her and her name was read.

Her possible conviction to all the charges could put her on California’s death row where she would join only a handful of women who are far outnumbered by men.

She stood just inside the front of the courtroom access door in a red jump suit issued to murder defendants and she had been shackled.  Ellen Schwarzenberg, a San Joaquin County public defender, was at her side as the judge read the list of charges against her.  

Prosecutors claimed special circumstances of murder in the course of a kidnapping and associated with the lewd and lascivious acts upon a minor under 14, in addition to the rape accusation with a foreign object.

Huckaby entered no plea to her charges and was soon escorted back out of the courtroom for her trip back to the San Joaquin County Jail in French Camp where she is being held without bail.  Emotions ran high in the courtroom where the session lasted only a few minutes.

There was only room for 13 reporters in Judge Richard Vlavianos’ courtroom located on the third floor.  Reporters were not allowed to take cameras into the building or into the court – a single pool still photographer from the Associated Press and videographer from the Stockton Record were assigned to record the session.

A mass of television news crews and reporters awaited family members outside the front door of the courthouse – following them to their cars as they exited.  It was an attempt to get whatever statements they could in what was described as media frenzy.

Some exited out the other side of the building but the reporters and photographers ran around the outside of the courthouse to catch up with them.  One mom – a Tracy neighbor – tightly held the hand of her young daughter.

She had been very emotional inside the courtroom saying she would not let her daughter out of her sight as the two walked – hand in hand – toward their car parked across Weber Avenue.

Melissa’s dad, Brian Lawless, a resident of Orange County, was in the courtroom with members of the 8-year-old’s family.  Many were seen wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “Justice for Sandra.”

Lawless refused to answer reporters’ questions as they followed him around the block as he attempted to reach his car.  Sandra Cantu’s dad – also from Southern California – likewise refused to speak with the flock of relentless reporters.

The public defender  requested that her client be evaluated to ascertain whether she could be given psychotropic medications.  Schwarzenberg had also requested a gag order on the case.  Judge Vlavianos refused to rule on her request.

The judge set the date for a continued arraignment on April 24 in the San Joaquin County Superior Court, Department 5. Judge Terrance Van Oss will preside over the continued arraignment.  

Susan Levy – the mother of the late Chandra Levy – was there, too, representing the Sund-Carrington Foundation.  She walked Sandra Cantu’s aunt and uncle, Joe and Angie Chavez, to their car – her right hand giving a caring and supportive message with her touch to the man’s shoulder.

Melissa reportedly moved to Tracy a year ago from Orange County in Southern California; however Manteca police said they had her as a victim in a local case some two years ago here.

Huckaby was born in the Southland –her birth name was Melissa Lawless.  Her formative years were in the La Habra area, and she attended Brea Olinda High School from 1995 to 1999, according to friends.

She moved to San Joaquin County with her 4-year-old daughter to live with her grandparents at their mobile home in Tracy where her grandfather serves as a Baptist minister.  Melissa volunteered as a Sunday school teacher at his Clover Road Baptist Church a short distance south of Highway 205 and a short distance west of Tracy Boulevard.

The “special circumstances” added to her charges would make her eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himmelblau told The Associated Press.

The Jacobson Elementary School second grader disappeared March 27 after a surveillance video camera in the mobile home park captured her skipping near her home in the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park.

A search that lasted some days ended 10 days later when farm workers drained an irrigation pond on the other side of the freeway – some two miles north of her mobile home –  and located a suitcase that contained her remains.  Melissa reportedly told a newspaper reporter that her suitcase had disappeared after she left it unattended near her home.

Some three years ago – while living in Southern California – she was charged with petty theft.  Pleading “no contest” she was ordered by the court to pay some $1,700 in fines or perform roadside work for the highway department.  She was reportedly given three years probation, and ordered to stay away from the department store chain where she was arrested.

Just five months ago she was charged with petty theft – with a prior conviction —in San Joaquin County.  She had a court date scheduled for last Friday where she would hear the results of a mental health evaluation.

Her public defender reportedly added that the mental evaluation may become available when Huckaby returns to court on April 24.