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Tearful suspect in California girl's slaying appears in court

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Melissa Huckaby flinches at mention of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu's name
  • NEW: Huckaby faces special circumstances including kidnap, rape by instrument
  • NEW: Decision on whether to seek the death penalty will come later
  • A Sunday school teacher, Huckaby was arrested last week
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(CNN) -- A California woman accused in the rape and murder of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu fought tears Tuesday as a judge read the charges against her in a brief court appearance.

Sandra Cantu, 8, had been missing almost two weeks before her body was found, police say.

Melissa Huckaby is charged with killing 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, who was a friend of her own daughter.

Wearing red jail scrubs over a white T-shirt, Melissa Huckaby, 28, flinched at the mention of Sandra's name. She is charged with killing Sandra, who was a friend of her own daughter.

The Sunday school teacher's lip quivered and a single tear rolled down her cheek as the judge read special circumstances alleged against her -- that the murder was committed in conjunction with a kidnapping, the performance of a lewd and lascivious act upon a child, and rape by instrument.

Huckaby did not enter a plea or speak during the appearance. Public defender Ellen Schwarzenberg, who appeared in court with Huckaby, said she would not enter a plea at that time, adding she had spoken with Huckaby "very briefly." Read the complaint (PDF)

The matter was continued for arraignment on April 24.

Schwarzenberg requested a gag order be imposed in the case, but the judge put off that matter until April 24 as well. Huckaby will remain in the San Joaquin County Jail without bond.

Huckaby is undergoing a medical evaluation as part of another case, an alleged petty theft being handled in a mental health court, Willett said.

Asked whether that would affect the murder case, he said, "Obviously, any mental health issues would have an effect on this case."

Schwarzenberg said she hopes people will not rush to judgment in the case until all the facts are known.

If convicted as charged, Huckaby faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole, San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett told reporters after the hearing. A decision on whether to seek the death penalty will be made later, he said.

Sandra's body was found April 6, stuffed into a suitcase and submerged in a pond at a dairy farm. Huckaby was arrested Friday night after questioning by police.

Sandra was last seen alive March 27 in the mobile home park where she lived with her family -- the same mobile home park where Huckaby lives with her own 5-year-old daughter. The two children were close friends and played together frequently, police said.

Huckaby is the granddaughter of Clifford Lane Lawless, pastor of Clover Road Baptist Church near the mobile home park, and she taught Sunday school at the church, police said. The church was searched as part of the investigation into Sandra's disappearance and death.

Before her arrest, Huckaby acknowledged to a newspaper reporter that she owned the suitcase that contained Sandra's body. But Huckaby said the suitcase had been stolen.

Willett declined to comment on any of the evidence or allegations in the case, saying evidence would be presented in court.

CNN Radio's Ninette Sosa contributed to this report.

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