Sentences for E2 club owners thrown out by appeals court
BY LISA DONOVAN AND STELLA FOSTER Staff Reporters November 16, 2011 1:58PM
2-19-03 PHOTOS, FLOWERS, ALL IN MEMORIAL TO THOSE KILLED IN THE E2 NIGHTCLUB TRAGEDY at 2347 S. Michigan/Chicago. Prayers, tears and grief for 21 who died in stampede. (photo by John H White/Chicago Sun-Times) 03-02-299/DIG
Updated: December 18, 2011 5:18PM
The state appeals court has tossed the convictions and jail sentences for the owners of the South Side’s E2 nightclub where 21 people were crushed as they rushed to leave in 2003.
A security guard using pepper spray in the crowded club triggered the rush from the second floor nightclub, authorities have said.
But the city filed indirect criminal contempt charges against club owners Calvin Hollins and Dwain Kyles, claiming the pair failed to follow a judge’s order to close the second floor — because of structural problems — before the deadly stampede.
In 2009 a Cook County Housing Court judge found the men guilty and handed each a two-year prison sentence.
On Wednesday the state appellate court reversed the Cook County Housing Court judge’s decision, saying the original court order wasn’t as clear as the city of Chicago prosecutors claimed at trial.
“Simply, under the facts of this case, we disagree that the formal order was as clear and unambiguous as the city maintains the law requires,” Justice Michael J. Murphy wrote in a unanimous opinion of the three-justice panel.
“At first blush the language appears clear, however, a review of the record before this court reveals the city’s law clerk should have included three words following ‘Mandatory order not to occupy 2nd floor’ in the formal order — either ‘of the building’ or ‘of the nightclub.’”
The court also disagreed with the city’s argument that the club owners should have sought clarification if they were confused about the order.
“This action is criminal in nature and the city faces the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the underlying order was set forth,” Murphy writes.
And the court said the city didn’t explain how the violations caused the deaths or injuries.
“The city asserted that if respondents had been acting in compliance with that order, there would not have been 21 dead and 50 injured patrons,” the opinion states. “There was no explanation as to how the building code violations related to the actual incident and tragic deaths and injuries.”
Hollins and Kyles have been free on appeal.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Hollins said: “I feel a combination of spiritual, mental and physical relief rolled up in one ball. It’s been an almost 10-year journey.”
He said that he knew nine of the people who perished “intimately” and that while he mourns their loss, he maintains he did nothing that led to their deaths.
“I knew in my heart of hearts that I did nothing wrong but to have an upstanding establishment. We were at that same location for 20 years without incident. So you can imagine, this has to be the most devastating thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Kyles couldn’t be reached for comment, but his attorney Chris Carmichael said this marks the end of nearly 10-year legal battle.
“It’s a long-running saga he can put behind him,” Carmichael said.
Hollins was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges in 2007 and charges were dropped against Kyles in 2008. Following that, the city pressed the Housing Court charges.
The city’s Law Department is reviewing the court opinion and it was unclear whether officials would press to overturn the appellate court decision.
In an e-mailed statement, city Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew said “we are disappointed with the court’s decision.
“In our view, respondents violated a clear and mandatory court order, and but for that violation no one would have died or been injured at their club that night,” he wrote.
Cheryl A. Rainey, whose 25-year-old niece Nicole Rainey, died in the Feb. 17, 2003 incident has said all along blaming the club owners was wrongheaded and that some of the fault lies with the city’s response.
“The city failed to respond from the very beginning,” Rainey told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. “We saw recordings or tapes of people from the fire department just standing there in front of the glass door watching people trapped.”
Rainey said she believes a lot of this was racially motivated.
“I don’t think as many people would have died if it weren’t a black club on the South Side. This was a black club filled with young black people, and the city doesn’t care about black people.”