A Georgia judge on Wednesday decided not to send Randall Miller back to jail for shooting a movie in 2019, but warned the director not to make any more films for the remainder of his sentence.
Miller is on probation for the 2014 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was killed in a train crash on the set of “Midnight Rider.” Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served a year in jail in Wayne County, Ga. The judge, Anthony Harrison, also sentenced Miller to 10 years of probation, during which he was not to work as a “director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production.”
Local prosecutors moved last year to revoke Miller’s probation, after learning that Miller had directed a new film, “Higher Grounds,” in Serbia, London and Colombia in 2019. At a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Keith Higgins argued that Miller displayed “inexcusable carelessness” in shooting the film without checking first with Georgia authorities.
“Instead of asking for permission, he did what he wanted to do, and now comes before the court asking for forgiveness,” Higgins said.
Miller and his attorneys have said that they believed that he was allowed to direct a film, so long as he was not responsible for safety. Miller said that the first assistant director, Jason Allen, was designated as the person in charge of safety.
At the hearing, the defense called several witnesses, including Miller’s California parole officer, his sister, and his father-in-law, who each testified that was also their understanding. Miller also testified that that was how he understood the term.
“I’m really sorry that I misunderstood you,” Miller told the judge, appearing remotely via WebEx. “I apologize for my ignorance.”
At one point in the hearing, defense lawyer Ed Garland cross-examined the lead prosecutor, John Johnson, about their plea negotiations in March 2015. The defense appealed to linguistic arguments, with Garland arguing that the modifier “with responsibility for safety” must have referred to each term in the series under the rules of the English language.
“We speak in common terms,” Johnson countered. “When we say you cannot be a director, that’s what it means.”
Harrison made clear that he intended the sentence to mean that Miller could not work as a director under any circumstances for the duration of his probation. But he denied the prosecution’s motion to revoke probation, on the grounds that Miller may have been confused. He made it clear, however, that Miller remains bound by the terms going forward.
“You’re not to act as a director, period,” Harrison said.
Jones was killed, and several others were seriously injured, in a train collision on a railroad trestle near Jesup, Ga. The “Midnight Rider” crew had positioned itself on the bridge to get a shot, without getting the approval of the railroad company.
Jones’ father, Richard Jones, attended the hearing in person on Wednesday. He said he was disappointed in the outcome.
“I feel like he really has never accepted responsibility for what happened that day,” Jones said. “I truly do not wish him ill will. I only want him to accept responsibility for the part he took in Sarah’s death, and accept the ramifications of it.”
Prompted by the prosecutor, Miller offered an apology to the Jones family.
“I am so sorry to you,” he said. “I think about it every day, and not a moment goes by that I don’t think about what happened that day and wish I could change it. All I want to do is bring good things into the world, and make good movies that have something important to say.”
“Higher Grounds” has yet to be released. It was funded by a large trust that seeks to promote veganism, and which has financed several pro-vegan documentaries. Michael Smith, an Atlanta attorney who represents the trust, testified that he reached out to Miller because he admired one of his earlier films, “Bottle Shock,” about the California wine industry, and wanted him to make something similar for the vegan cause.
“I wanted it to be not preachy,” Smith said. “A lot of vegan film content crams being vegan down your throat. I wanted it to be more light and lively and inviting.”
Miller told the court that he had struggled to find any work after being released from jail. He said tried to find teaching jobs, and had no luck, and that many in the industry did not want to work with him due to the notoriety of his case.
“There was an inordinate amount of press,” he said. “I obviously agreed to serve time in jail that was well known… Certain producers wouldn’t call me or show interest in me.”
He said he made less than $20,000 over a four-year period, and had to get loans from relatives.
The hearing had been repeatedly delayed, most recently due to Miller’s diagnosis with COVID-19.