Updated 11:40 a.m. PDT: JESUP, Ga. — A plea agreement was reached on Monday in the “Midnight Rider” case in which director Randall Miller was sentenced to two years in jail and executive producer Jay Sedrish was sentenced to 10 years probation.
Each was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 20, 2014, death of Sarah Jones in a train accident on the set of the movie “Midnight Rider,” a biopic of singer Gregg Allman. They entered their guilty plea just as jury selection was set to begin at the Wayne County Courthouse.
Miller’s wife, Jody Savin, also faced the same charges, but those were waived as part of the plea deal. One of Miller and Savin’s attorneys, Ed Garland, said that fact weighed heavily in a plea deal, as the couple have two children.
“That was a substantial factor in our decision,” he said. “He was not going to put his wife at risk, and she was completely innocent of wrongdoing.”
Miller also was sentenced to eight years’ probation after serving his jail time. Garland said he expected his client would be released after 12 months.
Also charged in the case was Hillary Schwartz, the movie’s first assistant director. Her proceedings were severed from that of the three others, but according to prosecutors, there could be some resolution to her charges within the next day or so.
Miller was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine and to perform 360 hours of community service. He will be barred from directing or directorial duties during the duration of his sentence. Sedrish also was sentenced to pay a $10,000 fine and will be restricted from serving in a directing capacity, including serving as a first or second assistant.
Miller, wearing glasses and a dark sport jacket and no tie, stood before Judge Anthony Harrison as he said he would agree to the plea deal.
Harrison also said he hoped the sentences would be a way to send a message to the entertainment industry.
“Hopefully, this will bring some meaning to the tragedy,” he said.
Miller immediately started to serve the sentence and was taken into custody. Savin cried as she left the courthouse.
John Johnson, a special prosecutor in the case, read a narrative of what happened to the court. “Miller knew that it was a live track and there was a possibility of other trains,” he said.
Miller did not address the court, but after his sentencing, Garland challenged the notion that the director would have knowingly placed a crew on the tracks, noting that Miller himself was out on the trestle.
“Randall Miller, at the time this happened, believed there were no trains that would come down that track,” Garland said. “However, he accepts full responsibility for these results and is willing to pay the penalty and service because a wonderful young woman died.”
On that day, a train came unexpectedly as the crew was shooting a scene from the movie, with a hospital bed placed across the tracks for a dream sequence.
Pre-shooting was originally intended for camera tests and one-off shots like establishing vistas, but it is now commonly used to extend shooting schedules and curb costs. The railroad line on which the production set up for shooting that afternoon is one of the busiest freight lines in Georgia. The crew was on a narrow walkway meant only for maintenance workers. As setup began, the crew was warned they would have a minute to clear the tracks should a train come. In fact, they had less time than that when the train sounded its whistle; they were unable to clear the bed from the tracks, and many did not have time to get off the bridge to safety.
The train hit the metal hospital bed, shattering it, and flying debris hit several crew members. One piece hit Jones and knocked her toward the train, which struck and killed her. Other crew members were also injured by debris, some seriously.
The case has hinged on whether the production had permission to be on the tracks — CSX railroad produced emails showing it had refused permission — and whether Miller was a attempting to “steal a shot” at the expense of safety.
Miller testified in a civil case that it was not his job to secure or review permits, but as it was his own production company making the film, that line of defense was questionable. Garland, however, told reporters that the director is not the one in charge of on-set safety, and that the person who was responsible for securing the permits, location manager Charley Baxter, never told Miller that the production had failed to secure permission.
Garland said that there was a “whole series of miscommunications and assumptions,” and that when it came to permission, “the message never got to him.”
“He had been told no other trains would be coming, so he believed that was a safe track at the time,” Garland said. “He also was under the impression that it was all right. There are a lot of details surrounding that. We chose not to litigate those so the charge against his wife could be dismissed.”
Jones’ father, Richard, sat in the witness box and read a letter he wrote to his daughter after her death. “To me, it was not time for you to die. Who I am I to say. Life is not about how long we lived but how well we lived it, and you lived it well,” he read.
He said that a life was cut short because of carelessness in the name of getting a shot. “It is not about payback, it is about drawing boundaries,” he said.
Judge Harrison asked about Jones’ siblings, as Richard Jones read a victim impact statement from her brother. “She loved her job and the people she worked with. Everyone did,” Richard Jones read from his son. “I have a hard time processing the world without her.”
Her brother noted the safety campaign that has been launched since her death. Her brother noted that crews are now more aware of the danger, and more willing to speak out. “Sarah has changed the industry at the cost of her own life. I hope her death is not in vain.”
Jones’ mother, Elizabeth, also spoke to the court, as Miller, Savin and Sedrish stared forward, listening. “Her life was too short,” Elizabeth Jones said, as she recounted going through a box of her own books and other belongings, like scuba gear. “She was fearless.”
She also read a statement from Jones’ sister, Rebecca. “I have lost a best friend,” Rebecca Jones wrote in the statement. “I will have only memories of my own sister until my own death.”
“There is nothing the court could do … to really bring you justice in this case,” Harrison told the Jones family before approving the plea agreement. “This was clearly a tragic accident that caused the death of your daughter and sister and granddaughter and loved one that could have been prevented. I hope that this day will some day contribute a message to the film industry.”
Garland addressed the judge’s remarks about this case sending a message.
“That has been the goal of the Jones family,” he said. “Unfortunately, our client became the vehicle for this larger message. Let me be clear. These two people are two of the most wonderful people in the film industry. They have had thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, work for them in the film industry and never had a single significant injury of any sort. They cared and loved for their crew at all times.
Garland also defended his clients’ safety record. “This was a one-time-off event, brought about by a whole series of miscommunications. He had no thought in his mind that he was in danger. He wouldn’t have been out there because of his two children if he had imagined there was any danger. But mistakes get made, and these should have been prevented. But because he was the director who is not in charge of safety — there are all kinds of other people in charge of safety under the contracts — he got the blame.”
“The system needs to be better, and we ended up being the poster child.”