5:00am PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
'Midnight Rider': Did the Punishment Fit the Crimes?
A version of this story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was expected to take a week to try director Randall Miller, his producer (and Miller's wife) Jody Savin and producer Jay Sedrish for involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass connected with the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was hit by a train a year ago on the set of their Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. But the trial in rural Wayne County, Ga., never happened. On Monday morning Miller switched his plea to guilty in a deal with prosecutors, which included dismissing Savin's charges. The decision was just days in the making, Amanda Clark Palmer, an attorney for Miller and Savin, tells THR. Sedrish pled similarly. Midnight Rider first A.D. Hillary Schwartz's separate trial was fast-tracked to Tuesday. The facts of the train disaster reflected the same on every defendant, says prosecuting assistant district attorney John Johnson: “Everyone knew it was a live track. All there knew they did not have permission to be there.”
Miller brought his crew to the tracks without the train company's permission. "It's called stealing a shot," says Johnson. "Miller knew that it was a live track." The director received the harshest sentence — 10 years, of which two would be spent in jail in Wayne County. His probation bars him from directing a film, serving as a first A.D. or supervising a film crew. He'll pay a $20,000 fine and do 360 hours of community service. "I think the person that is most responsible is the one doing the jail time," says prosecuting district attorney Jackie Johnson.
Miller's partner in their Unclaimed Freight production shingle planned the shoot over Wayne County's Altamaha River with him. The dismissal of her charges was "a big factor" in her husband pleading guilty, says Clark Palmer. "We're very pleased that charges against Jody were dismissed."
Sedrish didn't provide the crew with instructions on railroad safety, including not placing objects on the tracks — like the bed that caused Jones' death. He entered an Alford plea, similar to a guilty plea, and received 10 years' probation that bars him from directing or serving as a first or second A.D. or crew supervisor, plus a $10,000 fine.
The first A.D. pled not guilty and waived her right to a jury, receiving a bench trial from Judge Anthony Harrison. She received 10 years' probation and a $5,000 fine for disregarding safety measures and letting the crew shoot on the bridge. Her sentence was the lightest because she helped prosecutors reconstruct the events surrounding Jones' death. Says John Johnson: "She knew who said what to whom, what decisions were made."