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Hollywood director pleads guilty to manslaughter in ‘Midnight Rider’ saga

Film director Randall Miller, left, on the the witness stand last year in Savannah, Ga. Miller pleaded guilty on Monday to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing in the death of 27-year-old Sarah Jones. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

Early last year, when 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed on a railroad bridge in Georgia, film director Randall Miller was charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. His team had been shooting a scene from “Midnight Rider,” a story about rock star Gregg Allman set to star William Hurt, when a train traveling about 55 mph sent the crew scattering. Jones was killed. Miller pleaded not guilty.

Then he changed his mind.

Miller, perhaps best known as the director of “Bottle Shock” (2008), pleaded guilty on Monday to both charges and was sentenced to two years in prison followed by eight years of probation. The film’s executive producer, Jay Sedrish, also pleaded guilty and accepted 10 years of probation.

“We agree at this time the state could establish the essential elements of the crime,” Miller’s attorney, Ed Garland, told the judge.

The moment marked a rare one in Hollywood film history — when a filmmaker accepted blame for a fatal accident on set, entertainment industry attorneys told the Los Angeles Times.

Garland told The Washington Post that Miller accepted a plea deal to spare his wife and business partner, Jody Savin, from the same charges and to “bring an end to the uncertainty.” The couple have two children, and Miller did not want to risk his wife being put behind bars. After sentencing, he was taken to Wayne County Jail.

“Although we had defenses,” Garland said, “he knew it was appropriate for the head of the film company to accept the responsibly for the unfortunate, accidental death of this lovely young woman.”

[Teenage death focuses attention on train track fatalities]

On Feb. 20, 2014, filmmakers were preparing to shoot a dream scene with Hurt, who was to play Allman, on the Doctortown Railroad Trestle that stretches across the Altamaha River in rural Georgia. The crew put a metal bed frame on the tracks, where Hurt was supposed to lie down.

Miller’s attorneys said Miller was told that two trains used that route every day. So, after the second train passed through, the crew started setting up the scene, Rolling Stone reported. Then an unexpected third train came barreling down the tracks, smashing into the bed frame and sending metal shards toward the crew.

“The only viable means for the crew on the trestle bridge to escape the path of the oncoming train was to run southwest, to get off of the bridge and off to the side of the railroad tracks,” court documents read. “This required the crew to run toward the train. … While the crew had been told that they would have 60 seconds to remove themselves, the equipment, and the hospital bed from the trestle bridge, the train approached with a rapid speed, and the crew had less than 60 seconds to react.

“Several members of the crew, including Sarah, were not able to escape the path of the oncoming train, and some crew members, equipment, and the hospital bed remained on the trestle bridge as the train approached.”

“Sarah Jones was hit by the edge of the fuel tank and was run over by the train,” prosecutor John Johnson told the judge. “She died instantly.”

The defense claimed Miller had permission to film from Rayonier, a paper company that owns the land. But prosecutors said the company that owns the track, CSX Transportation, denied permission to Miller’s crew. Johnson said Miller knew he wasn’t allowed to film there. Johnson said the filmmakers even tried to write around that scene, according to the Associated Press.

But Garland said his client would have never intentionally put anyone’s life in danger.

“Randall Miller and his wife had had over 30,000 people involved in movies that he had directed and had never had any significant injury or accident to anyone who worked for him,” he told The Post. “He loved and cared about everyone who worked for him in the film industry. And in the last analysis, this death resulted from miscommunication and incorrect information.

“He was on the tracks himself and would never have put himself or the welfare of his wife and children in danger if he hadn’t been assured the trains weren’t coming.”

Filming never resumed.

[Fitness celeb Greg Plitt killed by train reportedly while racing with it in film shoot]

The “Midnight Rider” case is said to be the first in which a filmmaker pleaded guilty to a film-set fatality and was convicted and sentenced for the crime. In the past century, 52 fatalities have occurred on sets in the United States, according to Deadline Hollywood. Two cases resulted in indictments, though no one was ever convicted.

In 1929, 10 people were killed in Manhattan when a fire broke out in the Pathe Film Studio. Investigators found that the sound stages lacked a mandated sprinkler system, and production manager Harry Lalley and studio vice president John C. Flinn were charged with manslaughter. The charges were later dismissed by the New York Court of Appeals, according to the news site.

In a notorious 1993 accident, actor Brandon Lee was killed on the set of “The Crow” when a gun used in filming turned out to be loaded with live ammunition. The actor who killed Lee was not charged in the case.

But perhaps the most famous on-set deaths were caused by a helicopter crash during the filming of “The Twilight Zone” in 1982. Actor Victor Morrow was filming a scene with two child actors when they were killed. Morrow and one of the children were decapitated.

Director John Landis (known for “The Blues Brothers” and “Coming to America,” among many other films) and four other co-defendants were charged with involuntary manslaughter because the filmmakers had illegally hired the children. The defendants were later acquitted.

After Miller’s sentencing, according to Deadline Hollywood, Judge Anthony Harrison said there was “nothing this court could do to really bring justice to this case.” He called it a “a tragic accident … that could have been prevented.”

“I hope that this day will contribute to your goal of sending a message of safety to the industry,” he told Jones’s parents, “and give some meaning to this tragedy.”

Jones’s father told the Los Angeles Times that’s all his family wanted.

“We were never seeking revenge,” he said. “We were always seeking accountability.”

Jones’s mother, Elizabeth Jones, added: “Her death will not be in vain.”

Garland said he thinks Miller could be released from prison within a year.