CA appeal court reverses Rickleffs' conviction in 2012 killing of SF gay stylist

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 28, 2024
Share this Post:
The murder conviction of James Rickleffs has been reversed by a state appellate court. Photo: Courtesy SFPD
The murder conviction of James Rickleffs has been reversed by a state appellate court. Photo: Courtesy SFPD

The San Francisco District Attorney's office will be going forward with a new trial after a California appellate court reversed the homicide and robbery convictions of James Rickleffs stemming from the 2012 death of a gay hair stylist.

Randy Quezada, communications director for San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, told the Bay Area Reporter that on March 15 a judge will see if all counsel is "ready to proceed" in retrying Rickleffs, who was found guilty in 2019 of murdering Steven "Eriq" Escalon.

"If yes, and there is a courtroom available, they will be assigned and go from there," Quezada stated in an email February 28. "Jury selection would be a little later."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, Rickleffs, 57, was sentenced in 2021 to 50 years to life in state prison. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, he is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, in Amador County in the Sierra foothills.

The charges stem from 2012, when, according to prosecutors, Escalon, 28, and Rickleffs met during underwear night at the bar 440 Castro in the 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," Escalon's friend Roberto 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 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 Assistant District Attorney Julia Cervantes 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.

Jenkins has since appointed Cervantes to the DA's office's innocence commission, an external advisory body to the DA's office that investigates cases of innocence and wrongful convictions.

"I am honored that District Attorney Jenkins has selected me to serve as the DA representative on the Commission," stated Cervantes, who is also lead attorney at the post-conviction review unit, back in 2022, when she was appointed. "As a prosecutor, I am always mindful of the rights of the accused and that the responsibility of the prosecutor is to seek justice and not merely to convict. I am committed to a successful Innocence Commission with an equitable and transparent referral process. I look forward to working with the other members of the Innocence Commission and doing this important work."

'Unable to resist'

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."

"If, after the filing of the remittitur in the trial court, the People do not bring appellant to retrial on murder and robbery within the time set forth in Section 1382, subdivision (a) (2)-60 days unless waived by appellant — the trial court shall proceed as if the remittitur constituted a modification of the judgment to reflect a conviction of involuntary manslaughter and petty theft and shall resentence appellant accordingly," the ruling continued. "The trial court's judgment is otherwise affirmed."

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.

"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, as in the People's example, 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.

Marc Zilversmit, the attorney who represented Rickleffs at sentencing, told the B.A.R. that Rickleffs is now represented by the San Francisco Public Defender's office, which stated Deputy Public Defender Will Helvestine is now representing him.

"This was a tragic accident that was compounded by a wrongful conviction that was properly reversed," stated Helvestine. "We have long contended that Mr. Rickleffs was denied a fair trial, and the Court of Appeal's ruling confirms as much. Mr. Rickleffs looks forward to his day in court."

Esmeralda Escalon could not be reached for comment.

The B.A.R. wrote a letter to Rickleffs February 28 seeking comment.

Updated, 2/28/24: This article has been updated regarding attorneys for Mr. Rickleffs.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!