updated 3/2/2007 3:13:30 PM ET 2007-03-02T20:13:30

A judge on Friday acquitted three men accused of involuntary manslaughter in a 2003 stampede at Chicago's E2 nightclub that killed 21 people, prosecutors said.

In his decision, Judge Dennis Porter agreed with defense attorneys that the prosecutors had not proven their case against the three men, said Cook County State's Attorney's office spokeswoman Tandra Simonton.

Those acquitted are club owner Calvin Hollins Jr., his son and club manager Calvin Hollins III and party promoter Marco Flores; another club owner, Dwain Kyles, is being tried separately and was not affected by Friday's decision, Simonton said.

"Relief, just totally relieved," Calvin Hollins Jr. told reporters after the judge's announcement. "My heart still goes out to the families and individuals that were injured that night that I had nothing at all to do with."

Families upset
Relatives of victims, however, expressed anger, while safety advocates said it sent a message to club owners and managers that they would not be held accountable in such situations.

"We are devastated," said Pam Green, whose niece died at E2. "It was no justice at all. They're going to walk away scot free."

All four men were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 17, 2003 stampede, and pleaded not guilty.

The acquittals came at the request of defense attorneys immediately after prosecutors rested their case and before the defense called any witnesses, Simonton said.

"We disagree with it, respectfully," Assistant State's Attorney Robert Egan said about the judge's ruling. "We feel that we were in good faith bringing this charge. We brought it after a six-month-long grand jury investigation."

Prosecutors accused the defendants of not doing enough to protect patrons, including not providing enough exits and improperly marking exits.

They said videotape showed 1,152 people were in the club — roughly five times its capacity.

Fight broke out
Defense attorneys said nobody could have predicted the tragedy, a mix of factors that led hundreds of patrons racing to the entrance, including a fight involving as many as 40 patrons and a disc jockey imploring security guards to use pepper spray on those who were fighting.

In addition, with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks fresh in their minds, patrons added to the panic with yells of Osama bin Laden, anthrax and poison gas, defense attorneys said.

The tragedy led to reform of nightclub inspections and evacuation rules. Clubs are now required to display well-lit diagrams showing patrons exit routes.

An Illinois law adopted months after the E2 deaths also made it a felony to use pepper spray or Mace in nightclubs, to set off pyrotechnics indoors or to block anyone from leaving a nightclub during an emergency. Violators face up to three years in prison.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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