March 9, 2015 9:08 am
UPDATE, 9:08 AM: Midnight Rider executive producer and unit production manager Jay Sedrish gets probation and will not serve jail time in the criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter trial that is now over before it began in rural Georgia. Meanwhile, director Randall Miller was taken straight to the Wayne County Jail and booked after his guilty plea; he was taken right from the courtroom to jail. Miller’s lawyer, Ed Garland said. Insisting that Miller thought the shoot was safe, Garland added. “We expect him to be released in twelve months. That’s our expectation.” The dismissal against Miller’s wife, producer Jody Savin, was “a major role in our decision to enter a guilty plea,” Garland said.
PREVIOUSLY, 8:20 AM: Midnight Rider director Randall Miller today pleaded guilty to criminal trespass and involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of Sarah Jones last year. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, he was sentenced to two years in prison, 10 years probation, $20,000 fine and 360 hours of community service to be served in California. He also agreed during the terms of the probation, he agreed not to serve as a director, a assistant director or a supervisor in charge of safety on any film production.
As part of the overall plea agreement, charges were dismissed against Miller’s wife and producer Jody Savin. After Assistant D.A. John Johnson read the lengthy statement of facts about the case, Miller’s attorney Ed Garland agreed that the facts were correct, including the fact that they had not received permission from CSX to film on the railroad tracks.
After terms of the plea bargain were read, Judge Anthony Harrison asked if it is Miller’s intention to plead guilty to the charges, Miller said, “Yes, it is, your honor.”
Under Georgia law, the two charges – criminal trespassing and involuntary manslaughter – are directly linked. “A person commits the offense of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of an unlawful act,” the law states, “when he causes the death of another human being without any intention to do so by the commission of an unlawful act other than a felony.” In this case, criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor, is that unlawful act. Criminal trespass carried a one-year term, while manslaughter carried a 10-year maximum sentence.
Georgia law states that “A person commits the offense of criminal trespass when he or she knowingly and without authority enters upon the land or premises of another person or into any part of any vehicle, railroad car, aircraft, or watercraft of another person after receiving, prior to such entry, notice from the owner, rightful occupant, or, upon proper identification, an authorized representative of the owner or rightful occupant that such entry is forbidden.”
For the defendants, the key word was “knowingly.”
Last October, the attorneys for Miller and Savin issued a statement to ABC News saying that their clients “believed there was no danger present in filming on the tracks that day because they believed they had permission to be on the tracks from Rayonier and CSX. Before filming, the film crew was let onto the property by Rayonier representatives. They were informed that only two trains would be going down the tracks by a representative from Rayonier, who was present. Then they personally observed two trains pass by. So when they were told to go ahead and film on the tracks they had no reason to believe that anyone would be placed in danger by doing so.”
However, they changed their tune today as that flew in the face of what Rayonier stated earlier. In fact, the card were clearly stacked against them.
Landowner Rayonier filed court papers in a subsequent civil suit brought by the parents of Sarah Jones that denied any responsibility in the death of their daughter. (Read it here.) In the filing, the company acknowledged it had granted producers en access to the bridge trestle where Jones died, but denied giving filmmakers any knowledge of CSX train schedules on the tracks. They also stated that the filmmakers knew the dangers and knew they had to get permission from CSX. They stated that the bridge trestle, the tracks, the right of way were all owned, operated and controlled by CSX. The testimony of Rayonier’s employee who spoke directly to the filmmakers as well as that of the film’s location manager Charles Baxter are expected to be key. Baxter did not show up the day of the trestle shoot.
The Rayonier filing stated that the defendants “planned to film a scene on active railroad tracks despite their knowledge of the danger presented by filming a scene on active railroad tracks.”
Baxter’s own filing last year in the civil case (read it here) also revealed that he was unable to get permission from property owner CSX to conduct filming on the trestle and said that he did not plan to film on active railroad tracks.
An OSHA investigation into the accident leaves no question that they did not have CSX’s. “Prior to going onto the trestle,” the OSHA accident report found, “the employer failed to obtain proper permission from CSX to film on the trestle.”
The OSHA report, first reported by Deadline, revealed that in January 2014, the film’s location manager reached out to CSX for permission, but that CSX responded in a Jan. 27 email that it does not allow filming on its tracks because of the safety of those accessing and working on their railroad. OSHA investigators were told by a production official that this email was shared with all three defendants.
Also, the supervising filmmakers did not hold a safety meeting and purposely did not include a bulletin on railroad safety on the call sheet prior to loading camera equipment and the crew onto the trestle.
The OSHA report stated that on the evening before the accident, a discussion was held about whether or not the crew should be informed of a safety bulletin that had recently been issued by the AMPTP Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee about the hazards of working on and around railroad trains and tracks. According to the OSHA report, when a production official “asked unit production manager Jay Sedrish if he wanted the safety bulletin attached to the call sheet, Mr. Sedrish said a resounding ‘No’ No, No, No.”
On Feb. 14, six days before the accident, Sedrish and two other production officials tried once again to get permission from CSX, but were once again told no. “Unfortunately,” the railroad company responded via email, “CSX will not be able to support your request.”
In the aftermath of the accident, some of the representatives from Film Allman, the movie’s production company, told OSHA investigators that the email from CSX was “confusing,” but OSHA noted that no one from the company contacted CSX for clarification. Sedrish told investigators that the email from CSX was a “no” concerning permission from CSX, but not a forceful “no” as in a previous email response from CSX.”
In its report, OSHA stated that “Jody Savin, a company representative, said that (name redacted) read her the CSX email, where CSX said that they would not support shooting on their tracks, and (name redacted) said that CSX knows how to say ‘no’ and that they are not saying ‘no.’”
So in the end, Miller pleaded guilty, finally admitting responsibility for the death of Sarah Jones in exchange for charges being dismissed against his wife/producer Savin, and saving himself and his family the possibility of having both of them serving time in prison.