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D.A. in ‘Midnight Rider’ Case: ‘This Was a Very Preventable Tragedy’

JESUP, Ga. — Jackie Johnson, the district attorney who led the prosecution in the “Midnight Rider” criminal case, said she hoped that they were prepared to show the extent to which the filmmakers knew that they did not have permission to be on the CSX railroad tracks and that their location was dangerous.

“I think it is easy to call this an accident; this was a very preventable tragedy,” she told reporters after the final defendant, the movie’s first assistant director Hillary Schwartz, was sentenced to 10 years’ probation.

“Had everything been done, had everyone been doing their job that day, and had there been communication, I think that this would not have happened in any industry, whether it is the railroad industry or even in my office. Somebody has got to be in charge, and somebody has got to make sure that everybody else is doing their job as they should.”

Camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed and eight others were injured on Feb. 20, 2014, when a train came on the tracks as the production had been shooting a dream sequence from “Midnight Rider,” a biopic of singer Gregg Allman.

Prosecutors reached agreements with the four defendants, each of whom faced charges of criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter, just as a trial was to begin this week. Director Randall Miller pleaded guilty on Monday, and started serving a two-year jail sentence immediately in Jesup, with his custody to be followed by eight years of probation. Executive producer Jay Sedrish was sentenced to 10 years’ probation. As part of the plea agreement, charges against Miller’s wife, producer Jody Savin, were dismissed.

Johnson said they were “pleased with the resolution. I think the family certainly understands what we did and why we did it. On any compromise or agreement you reach, you don’t get everything you want. But I thought that this was a just resolution that holds responsible and holds accountable within the justice system the people that set the events in motion that day that did cause this to happen.”

She said a key piece of evidence, were there to have been a trial, would have been the two emails from CSX Transportation, the railroad that owned the tracks, informing the production that it did not have permission to be on the railroad’s property.

According to the testimony of detective Joe Gardner, the lead investigator on the case for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, the first email was sent on Jan. 27, 2014, to location manager Charley Baxter. It informed him that CSX did not permit filming on its property.

Baxter’s inquiry actually was for a different scene and location, one that was rewritten after permission was denied, Gardner said.

The filmmakers then sought permission for the Feb. 20 shoot through a different CSX official. According to Baxter’s statements made to investigators, he received the response at 10:46 a.m. on that day. CSX said it would “not be able to support your request.”

Baxter told investigators that he sent the email to the email accounts of Sedrish and Schwartz, as well as to a joint account held by Savin and Miller.

According to John Johnson, special prosecutor on the case, they were prepared to call Baxter as well as Schwartz to testify that “those emails were sent to those four people, and they got them, and that there were personal conversations about that between Charlie Baxter and the four. So that there was prior knowledge.”

That part of the case is critical, as the involuntary manslaughter prosecution hinged on the defendants knowing that they were trespassing but doing so anyway. Prosecutors said they also were prepared to show that the defendants knew they were going to a dangerous location, a live train trestle.

“Clear notice was certainly very important to us,” Jackie Johnson said. “It is not enough just to trespass. You have to willfully know that you are going out there. And in this case, not only knowing that, but knowing that it was a live track and a dangerous situation.”

Miller’s attorney, Ed Garland, on Monday disputed the contention that his client knew that he was not allowed on the trestle, or that trains were coming. He noted that Miller himself was out on the trestle, and narrowly escaped. He also said that on-set safety protocols are not the responsibility of the director.

Asked whether the resolution of the case would send a message to the film industry, Johnson said, “a director in the ultimate sense has to determine whether or not he is going to recognize those rules and follow those rules or whether he is going to make those secondary to ‘stealing the shot,’ which seemed to be what was going on that day.”

She and John Johnson did note a report from Deadline.com that Miller is the first director to go to jail for an on-set accident.

“In this case, I think the person who is most responsible is the one that is doing jail time,” she said.

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