Judge denies request to release details of murder of Calif. girl found in suitcase
STOCKTON, Calif. – STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — A judge on Monday denied a media request to release details of the murder of an 8-year-old girl whose body was found in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond in Northern California.
San Joaquin County Judge Linda Lofthus ruled against several news organizations, noting the case was not over and she wanted to preserve a plea deal reached with the suspect and the integrity of the process.
The family of victim Sandra Cantu also opposed the request, which Lofthus said would be reconsidered after sentencing.
Sunday school teacher Melissa Huckaby, 29, pleaded guilty to murdering Sandra — her daughter's playmate — in March 2009 in Tracy. A gag order has prevented court records from being unsealed.
Lofthus said she was worried that releasing any information could lead to Huckaby withdrawing her plea and taking her case to trial before her June 14 sentencing.
"I don't want the cat already out of the bag because I won't be able to put it back in," Lofthus said, "The right to a fair trial outweighs the public's right to know."
Huckaby, who appeared in court Monday, could face 25 years to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Citing public interest, The Associated Press, Bay Area News Group and the Record of Stockton, Calif., filed a court motion on May 12 challenging the decision by Lofthus to keep the gag order in place after Huckaby's surprise guilty plea.
Lawyer Duffy Carolan, who represents the news organizations, said she was disappointed by Monday's ruling. Release of the information is important so the public can evaluate the plea deal and the court's determination about sentencing, she said.
Members of the victim's family held each other tightly at the hearing as arguments were presented. They seemed relieved by the ruling.
Their lawyer Stewart Tabak had argued that the public already knows enough of the "horrendous" details of the case.
"How much more gawking, quite frankly, does the public need to do?" said Tabak, one of four lawyers in court representing the family. "This will set up an absolute feeding frenzy."
Another family lawyer, G. Archer Bakerink, argued that releasing any information would cause devastating trauma for the family, particularly Sandra's mother Maria Chavez and the girl's three siblings.
"This is not something that will be out for a week or two, this will be out forever," Bakerink said.
Huckaby's attorney Sam Behar told the judge that releasing any information might prejudice the case against his client.
However, Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau said the public does have a right to know some details and to understand how the plea deal was reached.
Lofthus said sentencing would be an emotional day for everyone.
"Everybody will have finality on that day," Lofthus said.
The crime drew national attention after a 10-day search for Sandra ended with her body being found stuffed in a black suitcase a few miles from a mobile home park where the family lived.
Huckaby was arrested after telling a reporter the suitcase containing the body belonged to her but had been stolen from her driveway the day the girl disappeared.