The murder trial of James Victor Lypps proceeded slowly this week with testimony from prosecution witnesses, including a former coroner who said there was “no way” Sherre Neal-Lypps’ death was a suicide.
Lypps, 66, stands accused of killing his wife in June 2009 in the couple’s Morro Bay home.
The prosecution alleges that Lypps, fed up with abuse suffered at the hands of his wife, “snapped,” attempted to strangle, and ultimately drowned Neal-Lypps, 62, in the bathtub.
Lypps’ defense attorney, Matthew Guerrero, argues that Neal-Lypps, who suffered from severe back pain and depression, committed suicide.
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During the first week of the trial, which began Monday morning, the jury heard from several law enforcement officers involved in the initial investigation, including some that are now retired.
On Thursday, they heard from Jeff Nichols, a sergeant who was a coroner’s investigator with the Sheriff’s Office in 2009. Nichols performed the autopsy on Neal-Lypps and ruled the causes of death strangulation and drowning.
Nichols showed jurors diagrams of wounds on Neal-Lypps’ body — including a bruise on her tailbone and another on the roof of one of her feet. When queried by Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt, Nichols said the bruise “could occur” if Neal-Lypps kicked the bathtub’s faucet during a struggle.
He showed the jury close-up photos of Neal-Lypps’ neck, which bore bruises as if she had been strangled by a thin cord-like object. The marks appear nearly horizontal.
Asked by Devitt if the marks were consistent with someone hanging themselves, Nichols said no, adding that those marks would be angled upward toward the back of the head. Additionally, the marks were not evenly dispersed across her neck, but rather were more pronounced on the front and right side only, and a “fanning” bruise underneath her chin indicated movement, Nichols said.
Devitt asked, “Is this a suicide?”
“No,” Nichols replied. “There’s no way that this person hung themselves.”
We kinda think that’s your situation. Where one thing pushed you over the edge. It would be completely understandable.
Chuck Denchfield, former DA investigator who questioned James Lypps
On Friday, now-retired DA Investigator Chuck Denchfield testified about his interviews with Lypps and other witnesses. Devitt played for the jury a videotape of Denchfield and now-retired MBPD Det. Leslie Daily interrogating Lypps days after Neal-Lypps’ death.
In it, the investigators had Lypps repeatedly handwrite several phrases from alleged suicide notes that Lypps claims to have found the night of his wife’s death, notes that the DA’s Office says Lypps forged. A handwriting expert later ruled out Lypps as the author.
Following the handwriting test, Lypps told the two that he and his wife were both on federal disability, she for physical issues and he for depression, for which he was taking medication.
Lypps told the investigators that he and his wife “had (their) ups and downs” over 20 years of marriage, including at least two incidents when Neal-Lypps had relationships with other men. He testified that he had little social life beyond caring for the ailing Neal-Lypps. Previous testimony revealed that Neal-Lypps was verbally and physically abusive toward her husband, and neighbors had called police several times about her behavior.
“I’ve been there for her when she needed me, and she’s been there for me when I needed her,” Lypps told the investigators on tape. “We both get frustrated and angry sometimes, I guess.”
Referring to the moment when Lypps discovered his wife in the bathtub, Denchfield asked him why he didn’t try to perform CPR.
I’ve been there for her when she needed me and she’s been there for me when I needed her.
James Lypps, in a videotaped interview with investigators
“Because it didn’t feel right and ... you’re not supposed to move anybody who’s injured,” Lypps said. “I just felt more confident that the paramedics would know what to do.”
The investigators then confronted Lypps, telling him that “the focus” fell on him.
“From what we’re hearing, anybody could understand the situation you were living in,” Daily told Lypps, saying he was “under (Neal-Lypps’) thumb. “Anyone can understand how someone with those pressures can snap.”
“We kinda think that’s your situation,” said Denchfield on the tape. “Where one thing pushed you over the edge. It would be completely understandable.”
Lypps timidly replied: “That’s not what happened.”
On Monday, former Morro Bay police Sgt. Manuel Silva testified that he arrived at the home in response to a medical call for an unresponsive person.
Silva recalled that he stood with Lypps outside the house while paramedics went inside. He left Lypps — who he said was shaking and acting hysterical to the point of hyperventilating — in the company of another officer and went inside, where he saw paramedics attempting to resuscitate Neal-Lypps. He said he saw a substantial amount of water on the bathroom floor.
Silva then called investigators to the scene. One of those was Det. Daily, who testified Tuesday that she analyzed the interior of the house, including the bathroom, in which hung a “daily affirmation” that included a list of self-improvement goals Neal-Lypps had written, including exercising and meditating more often.
The affirmation is one of several pieces of evidence that indicate Neal-Lypps did not plan to commit suicide, Devitt has said previously.
Testimony will resume Monday.