The details seeping out of little Tracy, California, get increasingly disturbing. Days before her arrest for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Sandra Cantu, Sunday-school teacher Melissa Huckaby allegedly tried to commit suicide by swallowing razor blades. A year before that, a court ordered her to get mental-health counseling after she was busted for shoplifting. “If you pitched me this story I’d throw you out,” a top producer who worked on a crime drama series tells me. “It’s too far out to be believable, even for television.”
“If you pitched me this story I’d throw you out,” a top producer who worked on a crime drama series tells me. “It’s too far out to be believable, even for television.”
Women don’t rape and murder little girls. Just murder? Sometimes, especially if it’s their own: Casey Anthony awaits trial for the murder of daughter Kaylee; Susan Smith was convicted of killing her children by driving them into a lake; the profoundly disturbed Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. Bad and heartbreaking all, but nowhere near as searing as the knowledge that a woman raped and molested little Sandra Cantu. The unmentionable image rattles down to the core of our brain. In my 15 years as an L.A. prosecutor, I never saw a case like this. I called a friend of mine, a former prosecutor who only handled sex crimes, hundreds of them, and his response was the same: Never.
That’s a problem for Melissa Huckaby. Assuming the police—who claim Huckaby did it and acted alone—got it right, everyone I talk to in California legal-establishment circles agrees: The best and most obvious defense will be some form of insanity.
And there’s no chance it will work.
I understand that’s a counterintuitive sentiment. The first thought that springs to mind when you hear these unthinkable charges: Huckaby must be insane. There is no rational motive for the commission of such hideous crimes against such a young, Hello Kitty-T-shirt-wearing innocent as Sandra Cantu. But logic like that takes a back seat to the need for retribution when the crime is so blindingly awful. “There’s all kinds of ways to let the jury know that mental wards are no cakewalk,” a well-known L.A. defender of the bizarre tells me flatly, “but in a case like this, it won’t matter.” In other words, a mental ward is not a slammer, and only the slammer satiates the pound of flesh demanded in a case like this.
That’s not to say the defense won’t hire a battery of experts to explain just how depraved Huckaby is. They will. And they’ll probably have some awful stories to tell about Huckaby’s sad childhood years. But the prosecution will have its own team, and they’ll likely say, "Sure, she’s disturbed—sure, she had a hard life, but"... and her defense will come crashing down right after the “but.” “These jurors come in with their own life experiences,” says one defense attorney who practices near the crime scene. “Whatever the shrinks say, the jurors will have sad stories of their own and some of them will probably trump hers.”
It won’t really matter what the shrinks say, anyway. When both sides roll out the big guns, it’s always a draw. We just saw it happen in the trial of the finally convicted Phil Spector. The courtroom floor was virtually awash in the blood of warring experts, and the jurors, asked for their opinion of them, basically said “whatever.” Smart jurors know that anyone can hire an expert to say anything. So when the experts lock horns, jurors toss all of their testimony out the window. And in the end, what you’ve got left is what you always have in a jury trial: a popularity contest.
How popular will Melissa Huckaby be? It comes down to sympathy and relatability. Jurors sympathized with Andrea Yates because there was lots of evidence that she’d been ill for a long time and tried to get help. Plus, she had a sympathetic motive—she was trying to “save” her children. Accordingly, after her first conviction was overturned on appeal, a second jury granted her insanity defense. But it’s unlikely Huckaby will be able to dredge up a history so compelling.
Then, there’s Huckaby’s relatability problem. “Not only is this a woman who raped a girl child, it’s a mom who raped her daughter’s playmate,” the sex-crimes prosecutor told me. “Can it get any worse?” By comparison, Susan Smith and Casey Anthony look tame. Yes, we hated that Susan Smith wanted to dump her children so she could run off with a boyfriend, and we detest the allegations that Casey Anthony suffocated that adorable little girl so she could party all the time. But as despicable as those crimes were, there’s an explainable motive and more importantly, no rape and no molestation.
That’s where Huckaby’s insanity gambit would really get sunk. Even if an expert could cobble together some theory as to why Huckaby thought she had to kill Sandra Cantu—and somehow prove that she didn’t know what she was doing was wrong, a legal threshold for insanity, even though she allegedly placed the body in a suitcase and sunk it in an irrigation pond—there is nothing that could make a jury understand or forget the hideous fact, if proven, she defiled a little girl. The fastest verdicts I ever prosecuted were molestation cases—I once saw a jury convict on nine counts in 20 minutes flat.
True, women usually get softer treatment in the criminal-justice system: The parade of female junior- and high-school teachers who “tutored” their young male students too closely and seldom received more than short-term sentences proves this. But the allegations in the Cantu case take this away from a “woman crime.” Rape, specifically, is a man’s crime. She might avoid the death penalty if the prosecutor even tries for it, but should these charges prove true, the jury will hold her to a more masculine accountability.
Marcia Clark, the former L.A. district attorney who prosecuted the O.J. Simpson murder case, has since served as a television commentator. She has written a bestselling book, Without a Doubt, served as a columnist for Justice magazine and is finishing her debut crime novel.