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Longtime SLO County public defender appointed Superior Court judge

Defense attorney Matthew Guerrero makes opening statements in the murder trial of James Lypps in 2016. Lypps was acquitted following a nearly month-long trial. Guerrero was appointed San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge Friday.
Defense attorney Matthew Guerrero makes opening statements in the murder trial of James Lypps in 2016. Lypps was acquitted following a nearly month-long trial. Guerrero was appointed San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge Friday. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A high-profile San Luis Obispo County public defender will take the bench as a Superior Court judge after 15 years of defending those with little or no means.

Matthew Guerrero, of Oceano, was appointed judge by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday, a new chapter in a career highlighted by his work on some of the most prominent and difficult cases for the San Luis Obispo County Public Defender’s Office.

Guerrero, 47, has been in both private practice and with the firm Maguire and Ashbaugh, now SLO Defenders, since 2002. In addition, he worked as a contract attorney for the California Parole Advocacy Program for six years. Well known in his community of Oceano, Guerrero also served on the Oceano Community Services District Board of Directors for six years.

He earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, San Bernardino.

It was not immediately clear Friday afternoon when he will officially take the bench, but Guerrero will fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge John Trice in June.

Guerrero is a Democrat. Salary for the position is $200,042, according to the Governor’s Office.

Working as a court-appointed attorney in some of the county’s most serious and complex cases in recent history, Guerrero amassed one of the most impressive local track records against prosecutors, successfully winning acquittals for two defendants accused of murder.

In 2012, Guerrero’s client, Andrew Downs, was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the Christmas 2010 killings of sisters Beverly Reilly and Kathy Yeager at Santa Margarita Ranch, as well as the attempted murder of Glen Johnson of Atascadero. Downs had battled schizophrenia and was placed in mental health holds several times in the months leading up to the shootings. Downs was sent to a mental health facility for treatment instead of state prison for the killings.

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Andrew Wesley Downs (left) with attorney Matt Guerrero in a San Luis Obispo courtroom during Downs’ arraignment in 2010. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In 2016, following a nearly month-long trial, a jury found defendant James Lypps not guilty of murder in the 2009 death of his wife, Sherre Neal-Lypps. During years of pre-trial work in the case, Guerrero discovered discrepancies in the District Attorney’s Office and Morro Bay Police Department’s case. He also successfully influenced one of the prosecution’s star witnesses to contradict himself several times on the stand.

Lypps had long maintained his wife drowned or committed suicide.

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James Lypps listens as defense attorney Matthew Guerrero cross-examines a witness during Lypps’ murder trial in 2016. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Known as an attorney who works hard for his clients, he’s twice successfully defended a former U.S. Marine accused of raping a girlfriend’s family member after a night of drinking in 2014. The District Attorney’s Office twice charged Rian Mabus with rape, and mistrials were declared after jurors twice failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Mabus has maintained the sex with his accuser was consensual.

Guerrero’s appointment will make him the first San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge to have primarily practiced criminal defense since Judge Harry Woolpert retired in 1996, according to Tribune archives. Last week, well-known private San Luis Obispo defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu announced he’s running for the soon-to-be vacant bench of retiring Judge Barry LaBarbera.

With Trice and LaBarbera’s benches filled, San Luis Obispo Superior Court will have a full roster of 12 judges and two court commissioners.

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