A Sunday school teacher who pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murdering a neighbor girl in Northern California made a tearful apology to the victim's family Monday as she was sentenced to prison for the rest of her life.
The punishment came after Melissa Huckaby, 29, reached a plea deal with prosecutors that took the death penalty and the possibility of parole off the table in the killing of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, whose body was found in a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond.
Huckaby offered no motive for the 2009 killing as she addressed the girl's mother, Maria Chavez. The victim was a playmate of Huckaby's daughter.
"I still cannot understand why I did what I did. This is a question I will struggle with for the rest of my life," Huckaby said, her voice trembling.
She said Sandra "did not suffer, and I did not sexually molest her."
"I'm asking you, Maria, for your forgiveness," Huckaby said. "I can't imagine forgiving someone who harmed my daughter. I hope someday you can forgive me."
Huckaby entered her surprise plea last month to first-degree murder with the special circumstance of kidnapping. All other charges, including allegations that she sexually abused the girl, were dropped as part of the plea deal.
Sandra's family asked the court to play a video depicting her short life. The footage brought many in the courtroom to tears, including Huckaby.
"She changed the lives of a lot of people. A lot of people," said Daniel Cantu, Sandra's father, who broke down as he addressed Huckaby.
"All I can say right now is, repent and think about what you've done," he said.
Sandra's aunt Angie Chavez told Judge Linda Lofthus that Huckaby robbed her family of the ability to see Sandra grow up, go to college, fall in love, get married and have children.
"No amount of explanation can make any sense of what she did or why she did it." Angie Chavez said. "The only solace we have as a family is to know that she will never do this again."
Authorities have released few details about the March 2009 killing.
At the sentencing, Lofthus lifted a gag order that had been in place since last year. She was set to consider whether to unseal documents later in the day.
Sandra was last seen on a surveillance video walking through the Orchard Estates Mobile Home Park on March 29, 2009.
A massive search ended 10 days later when her body was found stuffed in a black suitcase pulled from the pond a few miles from the community where she lived.
Huckaby was arrested less than a week later after telling a reporter the suitcase belonged to her but had been stolen from her driveway the day Sandra disappeared.