Randall Miller, a Hollywood director, has pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges in the death of Sarah Jones, a 27-year old assistant camera operator, kill last year in an on-set train accident during filming.
Last year, during the first day of filming for “Midnight Rider” Sarah Jones, assistant camera operator, was killed when a train crashed into the trellis during authorized filming. The film was a biopic about Gregg Allman, the Southern rocker. Six other crew members were also during during the accident that killed Jones.
In preparation for filming a scene where actor William Hurt, playing Allman, was to lie down on a metal-frame in a dream sequence, the crew placed the frame over the train tracks of the historic Doctortown Railroad Trestle that was over the Altamaha River.
Miller’s lawyers contended that the company received permission from Rayonier, Inc., for filming on the trestle. Rayonier, Inc., is a paper company who owns the land where the trestle is located. Prosecutors in the case claim CSX, who owns the train track, denied the filmmakers permission to film on either the train track or trestle and therefore the filmmakers knew they did now have permission.
Lawyers stated that Rayonier, however, informed the film company there would be two trains using the track on the day of filming, and when they has passed it would be okay for the crew to set up shots so they could film.
Edward T.M. Garland, Miller’s lawyer, said, “Randall Miller at the time this happened believed there were not any more trains that would come down that track.”
However, there was a third train, which came hurtling at 55 mph toward the crew. The crew scrambled to get off the trestle, but when the train struck the metal frame fragments of it then hurtled toward Jones.
The case seeks to place responsibility for the on-set accident on Miller and the production team. This is a hallmark case in Hollywood film history since crew members in Hollywood and elsewhere are demanding safer filming conditions. Industry attorneys in the entertainment business can’t recall other cases where a filmmaker had pled guilty for accidents occurring on their sets.
Randall Miller, “Midnight Rider”‘s director has pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
The legal term “manslaughter” is used for the act of killing a human being, however the manner is considered to be less guilty than the act of murder.
The difference between “murder” and “manslaughter” is intent.
Murder is having an “intent” and knowledge that the actions you are taking will probably result in another person’s death. Manslaughter is not having “intent” or knowledge that your actions could kill somebody. When an accident, without intent, causes somebody to die, or causes injuries that leads to the person’s death, a charge of manslaughter likely will be brought. If a person “intends” to cause serious bodily harm but not to the extent that the person dies, even though the injuries eventually result in the person’s death, manslaughter charges also can be brought.
There are three different degrees of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. Each degree has it’s own level of punishment.
Voluntary manslaughter: intentionally killing another person as a result of adequate provocation, unreasonable self-defense, or excessive self-defense. The punishment for a voluntary manslaughter conviction is 3-11 years in prison.
Involuntary manslaughter: unintentional killing somebody because you were negligence. The punishment for involuntary manslaughter if convicted is 2-4 years.
Vehicular manslaughter: vehicular manslaughter when an unlawful act while driving a motor vehicle results in a person’s death. The sentence depends on whether this is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Miller’s attorney said Miller’s plea of guilty was to try and spare Jody Savin, his business partner and wife, from prosecution. Charges of criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter against Savin were dropped. In addition to involuntary manslaughter, Miller pled guilty to a criminal trespass charge. His sentence was up to two years in the Jesup Wayne County Detention Center, then probation for eight years. Miller has also been fined $20,000 and must perform 360 hours of community service.
Sarah Jone’s father, Richard Jones, said, “It sends a message, frankly, that if you do not respect those that you’re in charge of, you may end up behind bars. I think that will get attention.”
A perceived cavalier attitude on the part of directors have been reported by many crew members about on-set safety on movie sets. This attitude is encouraged by the focus on deadlines and costs of filmmaking, pushing safety issues down on the list.
Some industry professional felt Miller’s sentence should have been harsher. Either way, it will have influence in Hollywood about how they do business in the future. It’s hoped that filmmakers will be encouraged practice greater safety instead of skirting the rules.
Former studio executive Joe Pichirallo, who is also the chair at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the undergraduate film and television department, has said, “Sometimes in the frenzy of making movies, basic common sense and rational decision-making get shunted aside. That is wrong and in this case ended up with a very tragic consequence that sadly could have been avoided.”
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson has said, “Sometimes the only way to get people to pay attention to safety is to show them the consequences will be grave if they don’t.”
Sarah Jones’ parents are hoping the prison sentence for Miller will send a strong message in Hollywood when it comes to film on-set safety.
Richard Jones has said, “We do call for the movie and television industry to examine themselves and examine the myth of this bubble of cinematic immunity they may think they have.”
He further went on to say in another interview, “We were never seeking revenge. We were always seeking accountability.”
Sarah Jones’ mother, Elizabeth Jones, has said, “Her death will not be in vain.”
Hollywood is not immune to fatal accidents. But criminal charges being brought against filmmakers are rare due to the difficulty of proving that members of a film crew acted with intent to cause harm.
The case is the first in more than 30 years to charge a film executive with manslaughter in connection with a film-set death.
In 1982, Vic Morrow and two children were killed on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” when a helicopter crashed during late-night film shoot. Director John Landis and four associates were acquitted in 1987 of involuntary manslaughter.
Part of Miller’s plea agreement prohibits him from being a director, assistant director, or any role that carries with it the responsibility for safety when it comes to film-set employees. After the decision was handed down, Miller was escorted to county jail to start serving his sentence. He agreed to a guilty plea so charges would be dropped against his wife Jody Savin. He and Savin have two children, 12 and 14. Edward T.M. Garland, Miller’s attorney, said, “He did not want to put his wife at risk.”
Garland stated that he expects Miller will server only a year of his two year sentence, then nine years of probation.
Even though Miller accepts full responsibility in Jones’ death, Garland said he was sure the set was safe. Garland said, “[it] has been the goal of the Jones family [to send a message to Hollywood] — and, unfortunately, our client became the vehicle for that process.”
Also sentenced in the case was executive producer Jay Sedrish, who received 10 years of probation and has also been prohibited from doing any film-set work where he would have responsibility in the safety of others. Assistant director Hillary Schwartz, who was expected to testify against Miller and the others, is scheduled to be tried separately. She is also expected to agree to a plea deal according to her defense team.
Judge Anthony L. Harrison said he accepted Miller’s plea deal “with some reluctance,” told Jones’ family that he felt their daughter’s death could have been prevented.
Judge Harrison said, “I hope this day will in some way contribute to your goal of sending a message to the film industry regarding safety and responsibility.”
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