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JESUP, Georgia — Randall Miller has pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass in the trial over the death of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant killed a year ago on the set of Miller’s film Midnight Rider. Miller changed his plea from not guilty.
Miller’s attorney is Ed Garland, who in entering the plea deal told judge Anthony Harrison, “We agree at this time the state could establish the essential elements of the crime.”
Miller received a 10-year sentence — two years in Wayne County jail, the rest on probation in which he can’t serve as a film director, first A.D. or supervisor in charge of a crew. Also as part of the plea deal, the case against Miller’s wife, Jody Savin, has been dismissed, said Jackie Johnson, district attorney for the Brunswick judicial circuit. In addition, Miller will pay a $20,000 fine and complete 360 hours of community service.
“There’s nothing the court could do, Ms. Johnson or the D.A.’s office could do, to really bring you justice in this case. This was clearly a tragic accident that caused the death of your daughter and sister and granddaughter,” said Harrison, addressing Jones’ family.
As Miller was being escorted from the courthouse, he turned and blew Savin a kiss.
Midnight Rider executive producer Jay Sedrish entered an Alford plea, which the judge accepted. Sedrish’s attorney, John Ossick, stated: “Without concession or admission of guilt, we agree there’s a substantial factual basis that exists for the court to accept the plea and establish guilt.” He was given a sentence of 10 years’ probation and a $10,000 fine, with no jail time.
Sarah Jones’ mother and father both took the stand to read heartwrenching victim impact statements. “I do not seek revenge, but rather I seek healing for all involved, including those responsible for my daughter’s death,” said her father, Richard Jones.
Sarah Jones lost her life last February during a movie shoot for the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. The camera assistant, 27, died when she was struck by a train while filming a dream sequence on a bridge over the Altamaha River, about five miles from Jesup.
Savin was defended by Don Samuel and Miller by Garland, both of the Atlanta firm Garland Samuel & Loeb. They’re working with longtime criminal defender Ossick, who is based in Kingsland on the Georgia-Florida border.
Garland Samuel & Loeb associate Amanda Clark Palmer tells THR the dismissal of Savin’s charges was “a big factor” in his decision to plead guilty.
“We are happy with the resolution. We’re happy that all the charges against Jody Savin have been dismissed. We were ready to go to trial, but this was a result that came with certainty and finality. We’re very pleased,” said Clark Palmer.
Samuel and Garland are seasoned defense attorneys. Their high-profile clients have included T.I. when he served a prison and community-service sentence for federal weapons charges and former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis when he was charged with a double murder in Atlanta in 2000. The Super Bowl champion pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a deal with prosecutors.
Johnson — whose office in Jesup is across the street from the brick courthouse — argued on behalf of the state. This won’t be the first case she’s fought with Garland and Samuel, but coincidentally, Samuel also got Johnson’s father acquitted when he was charged with a crime 27 years ago.
“She’s a very good lawyer. She’s very competent, a lot of integrity,” Samuel told THR of Johnson before the proceedings. “We just see this case differently, that’s for sure.”
The Midnight Rider filmmakers were accused of putting Jones and their crew in harm’s way on the bridge by filming on an active railway without proper permits and not following safety precautions. At around 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2014, a train barreled across the bridge, injuring several crew members as they scrambled off the trestle, some seriously, and killing Jones.
In their first statement following Jones’ death, Miller and Savin called the train incident a “horrific accident.”
“In the weeks and months that follow, when the true facts of the events are revealed, people will know that this was not a crime. We never had criminal intent; we would never knowingly or intentionally put anybody’s safety at risk,” read the statement. “Our hearts are broken, our spirits are broken. We have young children and can only imagine with immense sadness the heartbreak of losing a child. We are praying for Sarah’s family.”
In addition to the criminal case, numerous civil suits were filed against the filmmakers; their production company, Unclaimed Freight; the film’s distributor, Open Road; the railroad company, CSX Transportation; and Allman himself. In the wrongful death suit filed by Jones’ parents, Richard and Elizabeth Jones, CSX filed documents in which the company claimed to have twice denied the Midnight Rider crew permission to film on the tracks where Jones was killed. The cases have settled against most defendants, including Miller, Savin and Sedrish, but continue against others.
Hillary Schwartz, the first assistant director on Midnight Rider, was added to the criminal case after Miller, Savin and Sedrish were indicted in July. Then in February, her case was separated. She could be tried in Wayne County as early as Tuesday, according to Assistant District Attorney John Johnson.
Jones’ death reverberated throughout Hollywood and has become a rallying cry for on-set safety initiatives throughout the industry. Her parents told THR when they filed their civil suit in May that they didn’t want their daughter’s death to be in vain.
“We don’t want this to happen again. That’s kind of the bottom line,” said Jones’ father. “What needs to happen to make sure that’s the case?”
Mar. 9, 11:42 p.m. Updated with additional information on Miller’s plea deal.
Mar. 9, 6:45 p.m. Updated with comment from an attorney for Miller and Savin.
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