CHICAGO – The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday reversed an appellate court's decision that threw out guilty verdicts and sentences for owners of a Chicago nightclub where 21 people were crushed to death in a stairwell stampede in 2003.
Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins, co-owners of E2, were convicted in 2009 of indirect criminal contempt for disobeying a court order to close the club's upper level, and they were sentenced to two years in prison. But in 2011, the appeals court reversed the lower court's decision saying the judge's order had been unclear.
In its 18-page ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court stopped short of ordering the reinstatement of the verdicts and sentences, but the justices make clear in sending the issue back to the appeals court that they believe the lower court erred.
"Had the appellate court considered the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, it would have concluded that respondents were proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," the ruling says.
Viktor Henderson, an attorney for Kyles, said he's disappointed with the ruling but that it could have been worse and explicitly reinstated the verdicts.
The law office of the City of Chicago, which had filed the appeal to the state's high court, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Kyles and Hollins have been free throughout the appellate process.
E2 patrons were trapped and crushed in the Feb. 17, 2003, stampede after someone used pepper spray to break up a fight inside the club, authorities have said. The tragedy, along with a fire in a Rhode Island nightclub three days later that killed 100, prompted a nationwide effort to step up nightclub safety measures.
Hollins was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges in 2007 and the same charges were dropped against Kyles in 2008. It was later that the City of Chicago filed charges against the pair in housing court.
The two men had been ordered the year before the stampede to close the second floor level of the now-closed club. They say they did close the structure's balcony level, which they say was what the order actually intended to have them do.