UPDATED: Prosecutors in Georgia’s Wayne County today charged filmmakers Randall Miller, Jody Savin and Jay Sedrish with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass in the February death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Elizabeth Jones. Jones was killed on a train trestle while filming a scene for the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider.
The accident happened on February 20, when Jones was struck by a freight train. The film’s crew members were on the tracks of the Doctortown train trestle for the shoot by Unclaimed Freight Productions Inc., the production company owned by Miller and Savin.
Under Georgia law, a manslaughter conviction would carry a sentence of 10 years in prison. Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor and carries potential sentence of one year. Miller was the director of the film, Savin (his wife) was the producer, and Sedrish served as the unit production manager and executive producer. Other crew members on the shoot were injured but survived. The film was to be distributed in the U.S. by Open Road Films. Production was shut down, and attempts to restart the shoot in LA were rebuffed.
Related: Hollywood Adopted Railroad Safety Guidelines Shortly Before Sarah Jones’ Death
The Wayne County Sheriff’s office has been investigating the accident since it occurred. A grand jury was impaneled and Detective Joe Gardner presented before that panel yesterday. The indictments followed this morning. “After the indictment, the DA can issue an arrest warrant or negotiate an informal surrender through their attorneys,” said criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos. “An arraignment will come first, and then after that, the defense will have a chance to challenge the indictment on procedural issues and or the substance of the charges.” Normally what happens is the DA will immediately turn over grand jury testimony and all evidence to defense attorneys so they can work on any challenges to the indictment.
This is reminiscent of on-set The Twilight Zone helicopter crash in 1982, where director John Landis, his associate producer, unit production manager, helicopter pilot and special effects coordinator were charged with manslaughter in the on set-deaths of actor Vic Morrow (the father of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two children when a helicopter stunt went tragically awry. A sensational trial resulted in their acquittals, but during a preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer scolded Hollywood for putting children’s lives at risk just to make a movie. “This isn’t nickelodeon-time anymore,” he said from the bench. “I would have thought that after 75 years, somebody might have thought it inappropriate to put Lillian Gish on an ice flow and send her into the middle of Niagara Falls to make a movie.” Gish was seriously injured while filming that scene for the 1920 silent film Way Down East.
Prior to today’s charges numerous lawsuits have been filed against Miller, Savin, Sedrish, and over a dozen other parties. Richard and Elizabeth Jones, the parents of Sarah Jones, filed a wrongful death suit on May 21 claiming that the filmmakers “operated without minimum safety precautions and contrary to standard industry practices for productions of this scale and for productions involving dangerous filming conditions.”
Star William Hurt was one of the actors present at the time of the accident, which occurred as cast and crew were prepping to film a scene. Wyatt Russell, Charles S. Dutton, Zoey Deutch, and Eliza Dushku were among the cast set for the musical biopic.
From Deadline’s investigative report on the February accident and safety concerns on Miller’s previous productions: The crew waited for two trains to pass before loading a metal hospital bed onto the narrow bridge suspended over the river, and Hurt prepared to climb on top of it for the filming of a dream sequence. When an unexpected third train approached, some members of the crew tried to move the heavy bed off the tracks and save the camera equipment. They didn’t have time. Hurt, Miller, Jones, and several others including hairstylist Joyce Gilliard, a makeup artist (who was one of those physically injured), and the set photographer fled along the only escape route off the trestle, a narrow pathway wide enough for one person at a time. As the train hit the bed, it shattered, sending metal debris everywhere like shrapnel.
Jones’ death has spawned a flurry of commentary and calls to action regarding film safety across Hollywood. She has become the symbol of what has become an international movement in production communities. Several black ribbons were seen during this year’s Oscars ceremony including by Best Sound Editing winner Glenn Freemantle of Gravity. She was mentioned during the Oscarcast following the In Memoriam segments in a graphic pointing viewers to the Academy’s website.
On Facebook, where the Slates for Sarah page collected photo tributes in memory of Jones with slogans like “We Are All Sarah Jones” and “Remember Sarah.” Several organizations held memorial events including the Society of Camera Operators and the International Cinematographers Guild, which was attended by Jones’ parents Richard and Elizabeth.
“Not a day goes by that we at Local 600 aren’t reminded of the tragic death of our sister and member Sarah Jones,” ICG Local 600 president Steven Poster said today after the indictments came down. “This unfortunate incident reminds us all of the need for constant vigilance to ensure safety on the set, something our guild is fully committed to. We will wait for due process to occur and a jury to decide the facts of the case.”