California court unseals records in murder of eight-year-old

Weighing the family’s right to privacy to the public’s right to know, a Superior Court judge released most of the records sought by the media pertaining to last year’s murder of an eight-year-old girl. The judge withheld autopsy photos. -db

Tracy Press
Jun 14, 2010
By Jaclyn Hirsch

STOCKTON, Calif.  — Judge Linda Lofthus decided this afternoon to unseal most of the grand jury transcript and most of the evidence that police used to charge Melissa Huckaby in the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Tracy girl Sandra Cantu.

The only portion of the grand jury transcripts that will remain sealed involves the identity of a minor — a 7-year-old girl who Huckaby allegedly drugged in January 2009.

Lofthus said she wants to protect the identity of the girl and her mother but unsealed the rest of the grand jury transcripts, which includes descriptions of how Huckaby kidnapped, drugged and murdered Sandra last March.

The judge also ruled that the autopsy photos remain sealed, but said the release of the autopsy results, which are not part of the grand jury documents, remains up to the county sheriff-coroner’s office.

The search warrants and affidavits specifically involving Huckaby will become public documents, along with most of the evidence from the grand jury transcripts. Most photos will be available, with the exception of the autopsy photos, which she said would remain sealed to protect the privacy and rights of Sandra’s family.

She said her ruling was a balance between the public’s right to know and the family’s right to privacy.

“None of these were easy decisions for me, but that is the job,” Lofthus said this afternoon in the Department 34 courtroom.

Sandra’s family has fought to keep the records sealed, and lawyers for the family asked to postpone making the records public so they can decide whether to appeal Loftus’ ruling.

Lofthus said the attorneys could have until 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 18, to file an appeal. If no appeal is made by then, documents will be made available for the public.

Before Loftus made her ruling, she heard arguments from the district attorney, lawyers representing the family and lawyers representing three media outlets, including The Record in Stockton.

Stewart Tabak, a lawyer from Stockton who represents Sandra’s sister, Simone, compared the media to a “spoiled child” that “just doesn’t like the word, ‘no.’”

“What is out there is already too much,” he said.

Both Tabak and Archie Bakerink, a lawyer from Tracy who represents Sandra’s mother, Maria, said that Marsy’s Law, a 2008 amendment to the state constitution, gives crime victims’ close relatives the right to privacy.

Lofthus said she addressed the concerns about photos falling into the wrong hands by sealing those taken during Sandra’s autopsy. She said details of the sealed photos are described in the grand jury transcripts, which will make the information public without making the actual images viewable.

She added that the decision to keep the photos private is best for Sandra’s siblings who are minors. Lofthus also said she wanted to keep the images from showing up on the Internet.

“Once published, it goes viral,” she said.

She said she has “confidence” that mainstream media outlets would use the information in a responsible manner, but expressed some concern about bloggers and those “on the fringe of mainstream media.”

Copyright 2010 Tracy Press