SPRINGFIELD-The state's highest court Thursday reversed a lower court's ruling that would have cleared two owners of the South Side's former E2 nightclub of indirect criminal contempt charges brought on by a 2003 stampede to exit the club that injured 50 and left 21 dead.
In a 7-0 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court overruled a 2011 state appellate court's ruling that resulted in the acquittal of club owners Calvin Hollins and Dwain Kyles and their two-year prison sentences. The appellate court had reversed a Cook County Housing Court's ruling, arguing the lower court's order to close the club's second floor in 2002 had been ambiguous.
In the Supreme Court's opinion written by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, the court disagreed with the appellate court's ruling and found that the original court order to forbid occupancy of the second floor club at 2347 S. Michigan Ave. was clear. "Even if the orders could be viewed as forbidding only use of the mezzanine, the defendants had not complied even with this requirement," the opinion stated.
"Had the appellate court considered the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, it would have concluded that [Hollins and Kyles] were proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of indirect criminal contempt because a rational jury could have found that they were fully aware of what the building court's orders prohibited and willfully disobeyed the orders," the opinion concluded.
The court sent the case back to the 1st District Appellate Court for further consideration. The Supreme Court said the appellate court failed to address issues raised by Hollins and Kyles -- that the trial court had incorrectly instructed the jury and misapplied certain evidence -- and instead focused on willful violation of the order to close the club. The appellate court was instructed to consider the issues raised in the original appeal, leaving the question of the housing court order's ambiguity out of its decision.
"We were optimistic with all the previous grounds that we raised. The fact that there are various issues that still need to be considered means that we will move forward on those," said Victor Henderson, Kyles' lawyer.
Henderson said his client, who has been trying to settle the matter for more than a decade, has remained committed to clearing the air.
"He's been steadfast. He's been patient. He's been prayerful all the way through," Henderson said. "His primary concern has always been for the families who lost people that they care about and love. He's never wavered from that."
Lester Finkle, acting chief public defender for Cook County, represents Hollins and said Thursday's ruling will not change his office's approach to the case.
"I still have confidence in the case," Finkle said. "The issues are technical. I think that there are definitely valid issues for the appellate court to look at. I'm quite optimistic."
Meanwhile, city prosecutors are satisfied with the ruling.
"We are pleased with the Illinois Supreme Court's decision," said Roderick Drew, spokesperson for the city's law department. "This case was fairly tried to a jury, which agreed that the club's owners were fully aware that the building court's orders prohibited operating the club, and that they willfully disobeyed those orders. But for those violations, this tragedy would not have occurred."