A grand jury in Georgia has accused “Midnight Rider” filmmakers Randall Miller, Jody Savin and Jay Sedrish of venturing onto the railroad tracks and trestle without the permission of the railroad, leading to the Feb. 20 death of 27-year old camera assistant Sarah Jones. It’s a key charge for the case that has rallied the production community on behalf of Jones.
The trio was indicted by a Wayne County grand jury on charges of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing. The indictment — legally, a finding of probable cause — alleged the filmmakers had “unlawfully and without authority” had entered the CSX railroad tracks and trestle “after receiving, prior to that entry, notice from the owner thereof that such entry was denied.”
What had been unclear until the indictment was handed down was whether prosecutors believed CSX’s contention that they had told Wayne County sheriff’s investigators that it had refused permission for the production to use its tracks and claimed it had “electronic correspondence” to prove it.
The film’s producers have suggested they received emails from the railroad that either stated or implied consent — but none of those messages have been made public. The criminal trespass charge suggests no such messages were produced by the production. There was no immediate response from Miller, Savin and Sedrish on Thursday.
The involuntary manslaughter charge stems from the trespass charge with the indictment alleging that each unlawfully caused the death of Jones “without any intention to do so by the commission of an unlawful act other than a felony, to-wit: criminal trespass as defined in count one of this indictment.”
The initial sheriff’s investigation was turned over to the Wayne County D.A. weeks ago, but the D.A. returned the case to the sheriff for further investigation. The long gap between the accident and the indictment may suggest weakness in the prosecution case.
The timing of the indictment, on the day before a holiday weekend, is also curious. It suggests a “news dump,” timed to avoid media attention. But the indictment is likely to be popular in Georgia, where the death of Sarah Jones outraged local crews, and unlikely to spark much pushback from Hollywood, where few have voiced sympathy for Miller, Savin or the production.
The 27-year-old Jones was killed on a train track on the first day of filming “Midnight Rider” and seven other crew members were injured.
Miller and Savin are the owners of Unclaimed Freight Productions Inc., which was producing “Midnight Rider,” and Sedrish was the executive producer on film. Miller was also to be the director of the Gregg Allman biopic, which he and Savin adapted from the singer’s autobiography “My Cross to Bear.”
The manslaughter charge carries a potential 10-year prison sentence under Georgia law. The misdemeanor trespass charge carries a potential one-year sentence.
The issue of whether permission had been given to shoot on the railroad tracks is also a part of the wrongful death civil suit filed May 21 by Jones’ family against Miller, Savin and Sedrish. along with Gregg Allman, distributor Open Road Films and the companies that own the railroad tracks and surrounding land.
That suit alleged that the defendants failed to obtain permission for the production to be on the railroad bridge where the fatal accident occurred, and that they concealed that fact and the danger of their shooting plans from the rest of the crew by leading them to think they would be working on the tracks with the permission of the railroad.
Jeffrey Harris, the attorney for the Jones family and Sarah Jones’ estate, told Variety at the time that he had filed partly because he had run out of patience with the District Attorney’s office.
“I was willing to wait a reasonable period of time to see if the D.A.’s office was going to make a decision, but you can’t wait forever,” he said. “The civil case runs on a completely separate and parallel track from the criminal case. So in order for us to have the ability serve subpoenas and take depositions and submit document requests and do all that sort of stuff, we have to go ahead and get the the case into suit; otherwise we can’t get to the bottom of what happened that day.”