Retrial date in Rickleffs SF case to be set in June

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 15, 2024
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A new trial for James Rickleffs will be set in June after a California appellate court overturned his murder conviction. Photo: Courtesy SFPD
A new trial for James Rickleffs will be set in June after a California appellate court overturned his murder conviction. Photo: Courtesy SFPD

The date for a homicide retrial in the James Rickleffs case will be set June 20. The retrial comes after a California appellate court reversed Rickleffs' prior homicide and robbery convictions stemming from the 2012 death of a gay San Francisco hair stylist.

The June hearing date was determined at a court appearance Monday, April 15, in Department 22 at the San Francisco Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Eric Fleming had Rickleffs — who is being held at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County in the Sierra foothills — appear via Zoom. Joining the call were also Esmeralda Escalon, the mother of Steven "Eriq" Escalon, who was 28 years old at the time of his death, and the descedant's friend Roberto Tiscareno.

Appearing in person were San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Julia Cervantes and Rickleffs' new attorney, San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Will Helvestine.

The June 20 date was agreed upon by both Cervantes and Helvestine, Fleming said. Cervantes said she had requested a report created by a Pennsylvania laboratory, NMS Labs, and two other documents. They need to be given to Helvestine as part of discovery, and Cervantes anticipated she'd have them in time for the trial setting date.

"My understanding is discovery from the previous attorney has been handed over to Mr. Helvestine," Cervantes said.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Rickleffs, 57, was sentenced in 2021 to 50 years to life in state prison. That conviction, however, was overturned by a state appellate court last October. The charges stem from 2012, when, according to prosecutors, Escalon and Rickleffs met during underwear night at the bar 440 Castro in San Francisco's LGBTQ neighborhood.

"Rickleffs, as a straight-identifying man, went to the Castro with tape and a knife, sat there drinking, and I believe snorted narcotics in the bathroom, waiting for someone," Tiscareno said during the August 2021 sentencing hearing.

After going home with Escalon to his Diamond Heights apartment early on the morning of June 12, 2012, prosecutors said Rickleffs tied Escalon up, gagged him, and poured poppers on his face to immobilize him. Then he left Escalon's apartment with a suitcase of items including a laptop, Escalon's checkbook, and a bankcard of one of Escalon's roommates.

Escalon died of an overdose of amyl nitrates and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, or GHB, according to the medical examiner's report. He was found dead by his roommates, and Rickleffs was arrested September 12, 2012 in possession of the suitcase.

During his first trial, San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis, a lesbian, argued that the death, though unfortunate, was the result of consensual BDSM sex and discussed Escalon's alleged interest in drugs and BDSM sex, a defense the victim's mother, Esmeralda Escalon, said at the time was inappropriate and inaccurate.

In a group discussion with Cervantes, who prosecuted the case originally, and Solis outside the courtroom after the 2019 verdict, the jury explained their reasoning behind their decision. Most said that they felt Escalon's death was caused by many factors, including the obstruction of his breathing from the gag, his inability to move from being bound, and the drugs found in his system.

They did say, however, that although they unanimously agreed that Rickleffs did not intend to kill Escalon, it was the robbery and disregard for human life that swayed them to find him guilty of felony murder.

The fifth division of the state's 1st District Court of Appeal ruled October 24, 2023 — in an opinion written by Justice Mark B. Simons — that "appellant's murder conviction is reversed, although the People may accept a reduction of the conviction to involuntary manslaughter. Appellant's conviction of robbery is reversed, although the People may accept a reduction of the conviction to petty theft."

The appellate court panel gave several reasons for its decision. For one, a California Supreme Court ruling in People v. Brown (2023) threw out the very jury instructions for a murder by poison charge that were used in Rickleffs' case.

Simons also questioned the forensic evidence presented at trial — including an NMS Labs report.

"The only evidence of the levels of nitrate and GHB in Escalon's system came from a report created by a Pennsylvania laboratory, NMS Labs, which processed samples provided by the medical examiner's office," the ruling states. "The NMS Labs report did not include any raw data, but just listed the results of the testing performed. [Luke] Rodda, the prosecution's toxicology expert, could not independently reach a conclusion about the levels of nitrate and GHB, but instead relied solely on the levels identified in the NMS Labs report. No one from NMS Labs testified at trial."

Continued Simons, "Absent evidence from the NMS Labs report that Escalon consumed a significant amount of drugs, there is a reasonable probability the jury would have found appellant's acts of binding, gagging, and leaving Escalon did not demonstrate conscious disregard, but rather only satisfied the lower standard for involuntary manslaughter."

Simons also stated that the instructions on the robbery charge were also wrong because Escalon rendered himself unable to resist.

"Whether Escalon tied himself up ... or whether appellant tied him up at his request, Escalon would have knowingly and willingly taken action to render himself unable to resist," Simons stated. "In either instance, his resistance would not have been overcome ... without the voluntary cooperation of the subject whose resistance is repressed. ... We thus agree with appellant that the force required for a robbery must be non-consensual and the court erred in failing to so instruct the jury."

Simons was joined in the opinion by Justices Gordon Burns and Danny Chou.

A February letter from the B.A.R. to Rickleffs seeking comment was returned last month, with the U.S. Postal Service stating it had been sent to an incorrect address. A B.A.R. reporter told Helvestine Monday the newspaper would be interested in speaking with Rickleffs and had questions for him. Helvestine said he'd tell Rickleffs and return comment to the B.A.R.

Escalon and Tiscareno did not talk during the Zoom call. After court, Escalon declined to comment until the trial.

Tiscareno stated, "Obviously, we are sad that we have to go back to trial and relive this all over again."

"It's taken a long time to heal the wounds that were caused during the previous decade-long trial," Tiscareno stated. "Here we are again going through the motions and unsure of where this next trial takes us.

"It's disappointing to us that the defendant recently delayed the trial to try and hire his own attorney, but only for us to learn that he was unsuccessful," Tiscareno added. "It reminds me of the delay tactics the previous public defender used to advance her own career while the family and friends of Eriq Escalon were simply trying to find answers to how and why he was murdered. And just because we have answers to those previous questions, it's not going to make this case any easier.

"We are grateful for the support of the San Francisco District Attorney's office and wanted to thank [DA] Brooke Jenkins and Julia Cervantes for their continued commitment towards fighting for our Eriq," he stated.

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