Melissa Huckaby, 28, was indicted in July on charges that she murdered Sandra during commission of rape, and drugged two other people. She pleaded not guilty today to the charges after a hearing where she tried to fire her attorney, public defender Sam Behar. Her request — made in private while the prosecutor, the public and reporters waited outside — was denied and her reasons for wanting another attorney were undisclosed.
San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett made the decision to seek execution after consulting attorneys and Sandra’s family, prosecutor Thomas Testa said.
Judge Linda Lofthus disclosed during today’s hearing that the defense had consulted a change-of-venue expert from Chico State University, which means Behar may file a request to move Huckaby’s trial to another county.
Lofthus also said that Huckaby sent her a letter since her last hearing, which the judge refused to read until both attorneys saw a copy of it. Testa placed the letter face-up on a table during the hearing. It appeared to be a one-page handwritten missive, penned on a leaf of binder paper. What the letter said wasn’t explained, and a gag order prevents anyone officially involved in the case from talking about the case outside of court.
Huckaby was ordered back to court on Sept. 25, when a judge may set a trial date, possibly sometime in March.
Testa asked for a January trial date because he plans to call on witnesses who are 7 or 8 years old, children who used to play with Sandra or go to school with the girl, he told the judge. If the date is too far off, their memories may fade. But Behar said he would rather have the trial start in a year-and-a-half, especially since it’s now a capital punishment case. Behar said he still has to finish reading nearly 1,800 pages of transcripts from a grand jury hearing, which the judge decided should remain sealed.
Huckaby remained calm in court today, and waved quickly at her family on her way out. Several members of Sandra’s family attended, too, accompanied by friends and their attorney.
Sandra was reportedly killed on March 27 at Clover Road Baptist Church, which Huckaby’s grandfather owns and where Huckaby herself used to watch children during church services.
The former Sunday school teacher acted up in jail before her hearing last month, according to incident reports included in her court file. She allegedly wrapped a blanket around her neck, refused dinner and said she “took pills,” according to jail employees. And on Aug. 17, she showed up to court with fresh scratches on her forehead and left forearm.
Huckaby was undergoing a mental evaluation before her April arrest for a petty theft conviction, according to court records. Family members and friends have said that she once tried to kill herself and has battled depression for a long time. Her ex-husband said she tried to kill herself by swallowing razor blades the day Sandra’s body was found in a dairy pond a couple miles north of Tracy.
In addition to charges that she drugged a 7-year-old girl in January and a 37-year-old Hayward man in March, Huckaby is accused of killing Sandra, who used to play with her 5-year-old daughter in their Tracy mobile home park. Sandra’s body was found stuffed in a suitcase in an irrigation pond north of town on April 6, 10 days after she went missing. Huckaby said she reported a black suitcase stolen the day Sandra disappeared, and that Sandra visited her house the hour she was last seen alive.
•Contact Tracy Press reporter Jennifer Wadsworth at 830-4225 or email@example.com.