Crime

Former Morro Bay man not guilty of murder in death of his wife, jury finds

A jury found James Victor Lypps not guilty of murder Monday afternoon in the June 2009 death of his wife of more than 20 years, Sherre Neal-Lypps.

After two days of deliberations and more than three weeks of testimony, a jury of eight men and four women found that prosecutors did not reach their burden of proof to convict Lypps, the jury foreperson said outside the courtroom.

Neal-Lypps’ body was found lying in about six inches of water in a bathtub in the home she shared with Lypps in Morro Bay after Lypps called 911 on June 23, 2009. Lypps, 66, said he was out buying coffee and groceries when he returned and found his wife’s body.

After the verdict was read Monday, Lypps — who sat mostly somber and motionless throughout the trial — tilted his head back and let out a visible breath of relief before hugging his attorney, Matthew Guerrero.

Lypps declined to talk to news media after the hearing. Guerrero, however, said Lypps felt “very relieved.”

“I feel we got a just result,” Guerrero said. “We had a very engaged and active jury, and we feel they really considered the evidence and came to a very just result.”

Lypps was “overwhelmed” and in tears after the jury left the room, Guerrero added.

“It’s really hard (for him) to plan. What do you do with the rest of your life now?” he said.

Felicity Lazo, Lypps’ former landlord in Nipomo, stood by Lypps following his arrest and attended most of the trial. Following the verdict, Lazo called Lypps “a gentle person” and wondered aloud how he would regain the two years he spent in custody.

San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt, who prosecuted the case, referred comment to Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham, who said Monday that his office stood by its decision to file the murder charge.

“It appeared to us that the evidence supported the murder charge,” Cunningham said. “However, that decision is ultimately one for the jury, and we have to respect their decision.”

Lypps was the main suspect in the suspicious death of his wife, but the case went cold because of a lack of physical evidence, Morro Bay police said previously.

The case sat for five years until Morro Bay police investigators found traces of Lypps’ DNA under a sample of Neal-Lypps’ fingernail and secured a warrant for his arrest. In February 2015, a judge tossed the case for lack of evidence. Then, in July 2015, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John Trice ruled that investigators had proved enough probable cause existed to try Lypps for murder.

During the drawn-out and sometimes contentious proceedings, Lypps’ attorney Guerrero filed challenges to statements made in investigators’ reports submitted to the court, arguing that they misrepresented key evidence.

Guerrero motioned to have the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office removed from the case, but Trice denied that motion on several grounds, finding that Lypps’ due process rights were not violated.

During the 4-week trial, Lypps’ defense attorney argued that Neal-Lypps, depressed and heavily medicated, committed suicide.

Devitt, the deputy district attorney, argued that Lypps, long-abused by his wife and facing financial troubles, “snapped” and attempted to strangle his wife before ultimately drowning her in the tub.

Prosecution witnesses told the jury that ligature marks on Neal-Lypps’ neck indicated strangulation, not hanging. Witnesses for the defense, however, told of Neal-Lypps’ multiple trips to local hospitals over several years for severe depression and back pain. A few witnesses testified that Neal-Lypps showed drug-seeking behavior and was placed on an involuntary mental health hold two months prior to her death.

Following the verdict, jury foreperson Elizabeth Zunie said that jurors were initially split evenly on Lypps’ guilt, but eventually agreed that the DA’s Office did not overcome its burden of proof.

In the next 24 hours, Lypps will return to the San Luis Obispo County Jail to gather his belongings before he’s released Monday evening. Guerrero said Lypps, who was renting a room on a ranch in Nipomo before his 2014 arrest, plans to stay with family in the immediate future.

“(He will now) try to get his life back in order,” Guerrero said. “He didn’t see this arrest coming. It was 5 1/2 years after his wife’s death — the case was closed, or so he thought.”

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