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Merla Walpole


On March 13, 1975, 35-year-old Merla Walpole (known previously as Merla Bueno) and her ex-husband, 38-year-old Antonio Rivera, were convicted of second-degree murder in the death of their daughter, Judy Rivera, in San Bernardino, California. Judy Rivera had disappeared in January 1965 at the age of three, and when a child’s bones were found in the Jarupa Hills in 1973, police came to the conclusion that they were Judy Rivera’s remains.
 
Walpole and Rivera insisted to investigators that they had been unable to care for their chronically ill three-year-old daughter and had left her at a filling station in San Francisco in the hope that someone else could afford to provide the needed medical care for her. Police, however, were not convinced by this story and believed that the couple had murdered their young child.
 
At Walpole’s and Rivera’s joint murder trial in February and March of 1975 before Judge Thomas M. Haldorsen, the prosecution, led by Dep. District Attorney Betty Dyke, offered the testimony of bone specialists Dr. Judy Suchy and Dr. Stewart Shermis. These bone specialists testified that there was a 95% chance that the bones at issue were those of Judy Rivera, based on abnormal bone formations, which Suchy and Shermis found to be consistent with Judy Rivera’s medical history.
 
Both Walpole and Rivera testified before the jury regarding the abandonment of their young daughter in San Francisco ten years earlier. The private investigator hired by the defense, Vincent Palermo, testified as well. Palermo had traveled to San Francisco and met with a social worker who recalled a case of abandonment similar to the circumstances described by Rivera. The abandoned girl had been named Judy Gasse by the authorities involved in San Francisco. The records relating to Judy Gasse’s case were consistent with the events described by Walpole and Rivera. Judy Gasse had since been adopted and her current name and location could not be disclosed because her adoption records were sealed.
 
The defense then offered testimony from Dr. Joseph Bailey, an orthopedic surgeon, regarding the available medical records of Judy Gasse. Dr. Bailey testified that the x-rays of medical records of Judy Gasse and Judy Rivera were those of the same little girl. This testimony was disputed later at trial by prosecution witness Dr. Walter Stillson, a radiologist, who testified that the x-rays of Judy Gasse and those of Judy Rivera showed the bones of two different people.
 
The police officers who had initially handled Gasse’s case when she was found at the gas station testified that Gasse had spoken haltingly, saying her mother was named Betty and her father was named John. The officers agreed that the child resembled Walpole and Rivera.
 
On March 13, 1975, the jury found both Walpole and Rivera guilty of second-degree murder. Sentencing was scheduled for April 1975, and Walpole and Rivera were allowed to remain free on bail until that time. In late April, prior to sentencing, Judge Haldorsen overturned the convictions of Walpole and Rivera, ruling that there had been insufficient evidence for their convictions. He ordered a new trial.
 
In October 1975, Timothy Martin, an investigator for the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, was finally able to locate Judy Gasse, who was living near San Francisco. Extensive blood tests and bone records confirmed to the satisfaction of the prosecution that Judy Gasse was likely the child of Rivera and Walpole, to whom she bore a strong physical resemblance. In November 1975, chief trial deputy district attorney Donald N. Feld recommended that the charges against Walpole and Rivera be dismissed. On November 21, 1975, the charges were formally dismissed.
 
 – Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:CA
County:San Bernadino
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1965
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:1975
Sentence:Not sentenced
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:26
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence