Midnight Rider director Randall Miller told a Georgia court Wednesday that he never knowingly violated the conditions of his probation for the 2014 death of Sarah Jones, and that was just enough to convince a judge not to send him back to jail.
“I was allowed to continue to work in the film business as long as I worked in a role that did not involve safety,” Miller said in video testimony today from his home in California, regarding his understanding of the parameters of his probation and parole. “It was important to me that I had no role in safety if I was to do any movie at all,” the Bottle Shock helmer added.
“I get that he was nervous and heard what he wanted to hear,” Judge Anthony L. Harrison declared of Miller misunderstanding the scope of his sentence in the heat of trial back in 2015. Yet, the Georgia judge found it hard to swallow that the director repeatedly was left in such confusion over repeated interactions with the law.
Still, promising to make the conditions as clear as can be, Harrison ended up giving Miller only a sharp slap on the wrist at the conclusion of the nearly five-hour hearing, which arose it was discovered Miller returned to directing a film overseas in 2019. “You are not to act as a director, period, first assistant director, period, or in any other capacity in the film industry where you are responsible for safety,” Harrison reiterated today, asking an agreeing Miller if he now understood his sentence.
During the much-delayed hearing Wednesday in the southern state, the filmmaker faced having his his probation revoked, which would have seen him imprisoned again.
Having served a year behind bars after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter over the death of 27-year-old camera assistant Jones on the set on Midnight Rider nearly seven years ago, Miller was released on probation in mid-2016. One of the conditions of his release was that Miller is “prohibited from serving as director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production.”
The definition of what seems to be a fairly straightforward criteria was the contested heart of this latest turn in the fallout from that fatal day on the Midnight Rider set. Among those attending today’s long hearing in person was Jones father.
In 2019, Miller did helm the DGA signatory film Higher Grounds in Serbia, Colombia and the UK; the coffee-themed Kate Nash starrer is penciled in to be released later this year. Upon being informed of Miller’s gig, law enforcement authorities in Georgia last May requested that Department of Community Supervision issue an arrest warrant for Miller for probation violations.
Under direct questioning from Harrison on the “broad statement” put forth in 2015, Miller today parsed his probation order. The filmmaker said he personally laid emphasis on the closing modifier in what he termed, to the judge’s obvious displeasure, a “run-on sentence.”
“I’m really sorry I misunderstood it,” an increasingly upset Miller beseeched to the judge.
Citing his own ignorance, Miller also said his legal team had confirmed his interpretation of the probation order at the time and since. “Who is going to hire me? I’m a guy with this huge press against me,” Miller went on to say as further justification for his now-contested actions.
Wearing a suit and tie, Miller told the court he tried unsuccessfully to get a number of jobs, including teaching and producing. Oddly or tellingly, Miller referred to the “inordinate amount of press” the case over the death of Jones received. The occasionally irritable Miller also told the court that it took him years to get a directing job because they are in general “hard to come by.”
Among those attending today’s long hearing in person was Jones father.
Virtually led by the nose to address Jones’ absent family afterwards, a suddenly tearful Miller said: “I am so sorry to you, 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.”
In that self aggrandizing vein, during his time under questioning today in the sometimes technically challenged hearing, Miller’s lawyers made sure the disgraced filmmaker told the court he was given permission by the Directors Guild of America to make Higher Grounds.
“This had to be 100% a union movie …so there could be no question about how safe it was, and that was important to me,” he stated. “They knew exactly what the plan was,” Miller continued. “They wanted to make sure because it was going to get scrutiny from everyone.” The DGA suspended Miller for one year after he was sentenced.
Miller “never enquired to Georgia what he was prohibited from doing,” said newly minted Wayne County DA Keith Higgins today at the hybrid hearing. “He did what he wanted to do and now comes before the court asking for forgiveness.”
“He did not act in willful disobedience of his probation,” insisted defense attorney Donald Samuel, stressing that Miller’s understanding was that he could direct if he was not overseeing safety on a production. “His own lawyers told him you can do this as long as you are not involved in safety.”
“He could work as long as he was not in charge of any safety on the movie,” Miller’s California-based parole officer Perry Thomas declared under oath via phone today of his own understanding of the stipulations of the probation. Thomas was in charge of the Golden State-based Miller’s case from 2016-2018, when the matter was transferred back to Georgia.
Since news of Miller directing Higher Grounds and the arrest warrant was issued, battling lawyers, a flurry of court filings and hinderances due to Covid-19 — including Miller himself coming down with the virus — had pushed back today’s hearing, which saw mainly maskless DA Higgins, Harrison, court staff and several witness in court, while defense lawyer Samuel and Ed Garland joined via video link.
Adding a further twist to the matter and probably contributing to Harrison’s leniency today, Miller under the supervision of the local sheriff department and then-supervising judge Stephen Kelly was allowed to make a film about drug court back in 2014. In fact, it was Kelly who asked Miller to make the documentary as part of Miller’s community service.
Harrison said Wednesday he will issue a new order erasing any ambiguity in Miller’s filmmaking status going forward.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.