Crime

Morro Bay woman's death was a homicide, pathologist testifies

James Victor Lypps, accused of killing his wife in 2009, pleaded not guilty to murder Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
James Victor Lypps, accused of killing his wife in 2009, pleaded not guilty to murder Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A Morro Bay woman found dead in her bathtub could not have strangled herself, a forensic pathologist testified Tuesday, contradicting her husband’s claim that she committed suicide.

“I don’t think a person could apply that much pressure to themselves,” said Gary Walter, who performed the autopsy on Sherre Neal-Lypps, 62.

Her husband, James Lypps, 64, is charged with murder in her June 23, 2009, death.

Despite being charged with murder, Lypps was released from jail last month after Superior Court Judge Donald Umhofer ruled in a preliminary hearing that the District Attorney’s Office did not present enough evidence to pursue charges.

The prosecution, however, re-filed charges, and Lypps surrendered to sheriff’s deputies after one day of freedom. Tuesday, Lypps appeared in court for a second preliminary hearing, this one before Superior Court Judge John Trice.

In the previous preliminary hearing, a detective testified to Walter’s findings. But Umhofer suggested that Walter needed to testify himself to exclude suicide as a cause of death.

On the stand, Walter said the cause of death was a homicide, the result of both strangulation and drowning.

According to police reports, Lypps said his wife was alive when he left their home on the day of her death. But when he returned from a coffee shop and a grocery store, he found her unconscious, mostly submerged in bath tub water.

While police did not find a suicide note the day Neal-Lypps died, Lypps produced two suicide notes the next day, which he said he found in their home.

Still, Walter said, suicide was unlikely. The ligature mark on the decedent’s neck, he said, was too low for a hanging, and it was not raised toward the back, as he would expect from self hanging. The victim, he said, also had water in her lungs and a sinus cavity, suggesting she was both strangled and drowned.

Walter, who has examined more than 100 California prisoners who have been strangled to death, said Neal-Lypps died “a traumatic death.”

Further, he said, he has never performed an autopsy on someone who committed suicide by drowning in a tub or someone who had killed themselves with a ligature.

During the autopsy, he said, he also detected bruises on Neal-Lypps’ arms, legs, foot, head and back.

“A bruise is generally always caused by some sort of blunt force trauma,” he said.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Matthew Guerrero noted Neal-Lypps had been institutionalized two months earlier for severe depression. He suggested Neal-Lypps might have failed to strangle herself before drowning herself.

The hearing, which was interrupted by a verdict in an insanity murder case in the same courtroom, will continue Wednesday.

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