UPDATE, 9:52 AM with more details: Midnight Rider’s first assistant director Hillary Schwartz was found guilty of criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter today and will receive 10 years probation and no prison time. Under terms of the deal, she cannot be a director or assistant director, but she can be a producer in a capacity other than overseeing the safety of others. She also was slapped with a $5,000 fine.
Schwartz was the final phase of the criminal trial in on-set death of 27-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones. She appeared in Wayne County Superior Court this morning before Judge Anthony Harrison who yesterday sentenced two of the three other defendants, including director Randall Miller, who pleaded guilty and will serve two years in prison.
With yesterday’s plea deals involving Miller, his wife/producer Jody Savin and executive producer/unit production manager Jay Sedrish and today’s sentencing of Schwartz, the State of Georgia rests its case, though there are several civil suits pending.
At a press conference after the hearing, Assistant District Attorney John Johnson told reporters that this was a “historic case” because it marks the first time filmmakers have ever been convicted of involuntary manslaughter in connection to a death on a film set. “Deadline Hollywood tracked the history of accidents,” he told reporters, “and nobody has ever been convicted. That makes this case historic.” He added: “This shows that there is finally a District Attorney who will prosecute.”
DA Jackie Johnson said that “this was a preventable tragedy.” Schwartz’s attorney Todd Brooks declined comment, citing the ongoing civil litigation.
Before sentencing, Jones’ father Richard Jones told the judge that as the film’s first assistant director, Schwartz was responsible for ensuring safety on the set but “apparently failed in her duty to do so.”
The sentencing hearing lasted less than an hour, during which time only one witness was called — Wayne County Sheriff’s detective Joe Gardner, who testified that his investigation into the accident found ample evidence that the filmmakers had not obtained permission to film on the train trestle where Jones was killed, and that they had not followed the industry’s own guidelines for working on and around trains and railroad tracks.
One of the few pieces of evidence presented was film footage of cast and crew members attempting to scramble off the trestle as the train approached. At the end of the short clip, the camera operator dropped the camera and all that could be seen was a portion of the trestle girding, and the sound of the train hitting the bed that had been laid across the tracks for a dream sequence that was being filmed. “Everybody ran to get off the tracks,” the detective testified. “Sarah was not able to get off the tracks.”
John Johnson said that it was clear from emails sent to the defendants that CSX, the train company that owned the trestle, had not given them permission to film on its tracks.
Schwartz’s attorneys asked no questions and presented no evidence. Her only comment came when the judge asked her before sentencing if she had anything she wanted to say. “No, your honor,” she answered.
Schwartz had been cooperating with the prosecutors. After sentencing her, the judge told her: “You did come forward and cooperate in bringing this matter out into the open and to a conclusion.”
Schwartz was indicted last September for her role in Jones’ death. Jones was killed and several others on the crew suffered serious injuries when a train hit a metal bed prop set up perpendicular on a Doctortown train trestle to film a dream sequence involving actor William Hurt in the biopic about rocker Gregg Allman. The supervising crew had twice been denied access to the tracks by CSX but they did it anyway to steal a shot. Most of the rank-and-file workers were kept in the dark. They had no safety meeting nor any medic on the set. The first AD is responsible for set safety.
Schwartz’s sentencing comes one day after Miller pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years total which broke down to two years in jail and eight more years on probation, a fine of $20,000. He must also perform 360 hours of community service, to be served in California. Under the probation terms, Miller will not serve as director, assistant director or supervisor in charge of safety on any film production for 10 years. Savin’s charges were dismissed as part of her husband’s admission of guilt.
Sedrish, the exec producer and unit production manager, got 10 years probation, during which time he cannot work as a director or assistant director, nor serve in any capacity overseeing the safety of others. He can still work as a unit production manager. He also must pay a $10,000 fine.
Schwartz had tried to get the charges against her dismissed last month, claiming prosecutorial misconduct. She said that she believed that an interview she gave to investigators was done under the protection of immunity. She failed in having the charges dismissed and the motion was to be heard at a later date (i.e. today). Her lawyers, however, did succeed in getting her case “severed” from the other three defendants. Had the case gone to trial, she could have been called as a witness.
There are still a number of other civil cases however that have yet to be resolved involving seriously injured crew members, including still photographer Izabeau Giannakopoulos and hair stylist Joyce Gillard. Jones’ parents filed a wrongful-death suit that was subsequently partially settled. The Jones’ case against CSX has still not been resolved; it is set to begin April 10.