Northwestern Law

Center on Wrongful Convictions
The California Exonerated: Antonio Rivera

They left their hearts in San Francisco

Former spouses Antonio Rivera and Merla Walpole were convicted in March 1975 of the murder of their three-year-old daughter, Judy Rivera, a decade earlier in San Bernardino County, California, and exonerated eight months later when Judy, then thirteen, turned up alive in San Francisco.

The convictions stemmed from the erroneous assumption that the decomposed body of a battered child found in a shallow grave near Fontana on February 1, 1973, was that of Judy Rivera. At the trial, Rivera and Walpole testified that they had abandoned their daughter in San Francisco in 1965 because they were unable to care for her.

Before sentencing, Judge Thomas M. Haldorsen set aside the verdict and directed the prosecution to investigate the defendants' claim. In October 1975, an investigator for the district attorney's office found Judy Rivera in San Francisco and Judge Haldorsen dismissed the charges against Rivera and Walpole. The body of the child found in 1973 was never identified. — Michael L. Radelet and Rob Warden

Case Chronology

January 16, 1965 — A little girl believed to be about age three is abandoned at a filling station in San Francisco, California.

February 1, 1973 — The decomposed body of a battered child is found in a shallow grave near Fontana, San Bernardino County, California.

June 3, 1974 — Former spouses Antoni0 Rivera, thirty-seven, and, Merla Walpole, thirty-five, are charged with the murder of their daughter, Judy, who had disappeared in 1965 when she was three years old.

March 1975 — A San Bernardino Superior Court jury finds Rivera and Walpole guilty of second-degree murder following a trial at which Rivera and Walpole contended that they abandoned their daughter at a San Francisco filling station in 1965 because she was seriously ill and they could not care for her.

April 28, 1975 — Superior Court Judge Thomas Haldorsen sets aside the guilty verdict and directs the prosecution to investigate the Rivera-Walpole claim that they left their daughter in San Francisco.

November 22, 1975 — Judge Haldorsen dismisses the charges against Rivera and Walpole after Timothy Martin, an investigator for the San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office, locates the child who had been abandoned in 1965 and after blood tests indicate that she is their child.

Case Data

Crime date: Presumably 1965

Jurisdiction: San Bernardino County, California

Crime: Murder

Defendants: Antonio Rivera and Merla Walpole

Age (at time of presumed crime): Antonio, 27; Merla, 25

Gender: Antonio, M; Merla, F

Ethnicity: Latino

Arrest date: June 3, 1974

Victim: Presumably Judy Rivera

Victim’s gender: Female

Victim’s ethnicity: Latino

Age: 3

Principal evidence of defendant’s guilt: Decomposed body of a battered child, presumed to be Judy Rivera, found on February 1, 1973, near Fontana in San Bernardino County.

Principal defense: Defendants testified that they had abandoned Judy on January 16, 1965, in San Francisco because she was ill and they were unable to care for her

Type of trial: Jury

Conviction date: April 1975

Convicted of: Second-degree murder

Sentence: Pending when conviction was set aside

Stage at which conviction exoneration occurred: Following jury verdict

Exonerated by: Discovery of Judy Rivera alive and well in San Francisco

Release date: September 22, 1975

Days of incarceration: 476

Prior record: Unknown

Compensation: None


Rob Warden, The Dead Alive, Northwestern University Press (2005).

Micahel L. Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance Putman, In Spite of Innocence, Northeastern University Press (1992).

Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet, “Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases.” 40 Stan. L. Rev. 21 (1987).

“Parents Charged in Girl’s Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1974, p. 3B.

“Southland,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1975, p. 2B.

“Southland,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1975, p. A26.

“Girl to Visit Pair Accused of Killing Her,” New York Times, November 23, 1975, p. 42.

Last Modified: August 23, 2006

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