Almost four years after the E2 nightclub disaster and a long morning of last-minute arguments, opening statements began Tuesday afternoon in the trial of three club operators charged with 63 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.
In the presence of Cook County Circuit Judge Dennis Porter, national media and victims’ families, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Robert Egan laid out the events of the night of Feb. 16, 2003, into the early morning of Feb. 17.
He first described the tragic scene in which 21 people, ages 19 to 43 -many from the West Side and Austin- were crushed to death in their rush to leave the club after a security guard allegedly sprayed mace to break up a fight. Egan will try to show that exit doors were not visible and the club had no emergency procedure. He went on blame the defendants in question: club manager Calvin Hollins Jr., floor manager Calvin “Nicky” Hollins III and promoter Marco Flores.
Calvin and Nicky Hollins were both present at the time of the incident, Egan said. Prosecutors intend to call two engineers who will testify that a safe occupancy would have been 240 people. On the night of the incident, video from the club’s entrance showed 1,152 people in attendance, Egan said.
Flores, as the promoter, allegedly made money from cover charges after flat fees were paid to the club.
“The more people that came into E2, the more money went into Marco Flores’ pocket,” Egan said.
According to Raul Villalobos, Flores’ lawyer, his client left the club at 11:14 p.m. that night, when there were only 231 attendees.
In his opening statement, Todd Pugh, lawyer for Hollins Jr., blamed the tragedy on a combination of regrettable but not criminal actions on the part of third parties, including security guards, the DJ and panicked club goers.
“The unforeseeable and independent acts of many third parties all came together in space and time to cause this tragedy,” he said. “Not every tragedy is a crime.”
The prosecution called its first witnesses on Wednesday.
Earlier Tuesday, the trial of Dwain Kyles, the E2’s owner, was delayed pending an appeal by Egan to allow disputed evidence into the case. The evidence, at the heart of the prosecution’s case, involves the alleged claim that the nightclub was operating illegally at the time of the incident.
Tommy Brewer and R. Eugene Pincham, Kyles’ lawyers, filed a motion on Friday to bar any witnesses and evidence indicating alleged structural defects and that the club was supposed to be closed.
“Whether or not the club was supposed to be closed had nothing to do with the cause of the deaths, which was asphyxiation,” Brewer said.
Judge Porter eventually agreed with the defense’s claim.
“There needs to be some nexus between the disregard [for the alleged order to close the club] and the cause of death,” he said.
This came despite arguments from Egan that in order to prove manslaughter, the state must be able to show a conscious disregard of risk.
The state’s appeal to include the evidence may take up to a year and a half in the appellate court, delaying Kyles’ trial for at least that long.
“Of course we’re disappointed by this,” Brewer said in response to the appeal. “This is their way to bury the case and keep it out of the public eye.”