Hollywood director Randall Miller has plead guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter for the death of an assistant camera operator who was killed in a train accident last year.
Last year assistant camera operator Sarah Jones, 27, was killed when a train crashed into a set during the first day of filming on “Midnight Rider,” a biopic about the Southern rocker Gregg Allman. During the accident, six other crew members were injured.
The crew had placed a metal-frame bed over train tracks on the historic Doctortown Railroad Trestle over the Altamaha River. Actor William Hurt, cast as Allman, was supposed to lie on the metal-frame during a dream sequence.
While lawyers for Miller contend the company had received permission to film on the trestle from Rayonier Inc. (a paper company that owns the land), prosecutors claim the filmmakers knew that CSX, the owner of the track, had denied them permission to film on the track.
Rayonier told the film company that only two trains would be using the track that day, according to lawyers. Once those two train passed, the crew set up for filming.
“Randall Miller at the time this happened believed there were not any more trains that would come down that track,” said Miller’s lawyer, Edward T.M. Garland.
But a third train came, hurtling toward the crew at 55 mph. The crew scattered and scrambled to get off the trestle. But the train struck the metal bed, and send fragments toward Jones.
The case, which seeks to pin the responsibility for the accident on the director and other members of the producing team, marks a important moment in Hollywood film history as crew members across Hollywood demand safer conditions. Other entertainment industry attorneys cannot recall another case in which a filmmaker has plead guilty to accidents that have taken place on set.
Randall Miller, the director of “Midnight Rider” has plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Manslaughter is the legal term given to the act of killing a human being, in a manner considered by law as less guilty than murder. The main difference between “manslaughter” and “murder” comes with intent. Murder is the having the intent of knowledge that your actions are likely to result in the death of another person. Manslaughter is not having that intent, but killing someone. A manslaughter charge can be brought when an accident causes a person to sustain injuries that result in death, or death. Manslaughter charges can also be brought when one person intends to inflict serious bodily harm, but not kill, yet the injuries sustained by the other person result in death.
Three Degrees of Manslaughter
There are three degrees of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular. Each carries its own severity of punishment.
Voluntary manslaughter: the intentional killing of another due to adequate provocation or unreasonable or excessive self-defense. If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a person can spend 3 to 11 years in prison.
Involuntary manslaughter: the unintentional killing of another due to negligence. If convicted, this carries a prison sentence of two to four years if convicted.
Vehicular manslaughter: when an unlawful act has been committed in a motor vehicle. This can be prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor.
According to Miller’s defense lawyer the director’s plea was intended to spare Miller’s wife and business partner, Jody Savin, from prosecution. Charges against Savin of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass charges were dropped. Miller also plead guilty to one charge of criminal trespass. He will serve up to two years in the Wayne County Detention Center in Jesup, followed by eight years’ probation. He has been fined $20,000 and ordered to perform 360 hours of community service.
“It sends a message, frankly, that if you do not respect those that you’re in charge of, you may end up behind bars,” said Richard Jones, Sarah Jones’ father. “I think that will get attention.”
Many crew members on movie sets who are not in the upper echelons of production have often complained about a perceived cavalier attitude from directors when it comes to safety on sets. It is felt this attitude is often fueled by a focus on costs and deadlines, rather than ensuring the safety of those making the film.
While some in the industry feel Miller should have received a harsher sentence, this case will prove influential in how Hollywood does business moving forward, through perhaps encouraging filmmakers from skirting rules and instead practicing greater safety.
“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,” said Joe Pichirallo, a former studio executive and chair of the undergraduate film and television department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Laurie Levenson, professor at Loyola Law School, 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.”
Jones’ Parents and Message to Hollywood
Jones’ parents were hopeful Miller’s prison sentence would send a strong message to Hollywood regarding film-set safety.
“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,” Richard Jones said.
In a separate interview, he added: “We were never seeking revenge. We were always seeking accountability.”
Elizabeth Jones, Sarah Jones’ mother, said, “Her death will not be in vain.”
Charges Against Filmmakers are Rare
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.
Plea Arrangement for Miller
Miller’s plea arrangement also means he is prohibited for the next 10 years from acting as a director, assistant director, or taking on any other role that comes with responsibility for the safety of film-set employees. Following the decision he was escorted from court to the county jail to begin serving his sentence. The guilty plea was part of a deal to drop charges against his wife. The couple share two children, 12 and 14. “He did not want to put his wife at risk,” said Miller’s lawyer, Edward T.M. Garland.
Garland added he expected that Miller would only serve only a year of his sentence, followed by nine years’ probation.
Accepts Full Responsibility
While Miller accepts full responsibility for Jones’ death, according to Garland, the director was convinced the film set was safe. According to Garland, 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.”
Executive producer Jay Sedrish, was sentenced to 10 years’ probation. Sedrish has also been prohibited during his probation from performing film-set work in which he would take responsibility for the safety of employees.
Assistant director Hillary Schwartz, will be tried separately. She was expected to testify against the other defendants. And according to the defense team, was expected to agree to a plea deal.
Judge Anthony L. Harrison, who accepted Miller’s plea deal “with some reluctance,” also told Jones’ family that their daughter’s death could have been prevented.
“I hope this day will in some way contribute to your goal of sending a message to the film industry regarding safety and responsibility,” the judge said.
Working with a Criminal Defense Attorney
A criminal defense attorney will be able to advise you on your case, as well as provide a strategy for defending you in a court of law. At The Law Office of Peter Berlin we understand the difficulties that criminal charges can bring, and we know that without your freedom, nothing else matters. If you have been charged with manslaughter of any kind, then you will benefit from the legal aid of an Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer from our firm. We offer a free initial consultation as well as 24/7 contact availability so that you may receive legal advice at any time without any financial commitment.