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'Midnight Rider' Director Gets Two-Year Sentence In Camera Assistant's Death

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This past week, Hollywood had its eyes on Jesup, Ga., where the case of a death on a film set wound up with a director going to prison. Randall Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and will serve two years for the death of his camera assistant Sarah Jones. She was 27 and died last year during the filming of an independent feature starring William Hurt called "Midnight Rider." Richard Verrier's covered the case for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us from that newspaper. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD VERRIER: Happy to be here.

SIMON: Do we pretty much know what happened on February 20, 2014?

VERRIER: Yes, pretty much. The crew was filming a scene - a dream sequence for a movie about the life of Greg Allman of The Allman Brothers. And actor William Hurt was lying on a bed that had been placed on a railway track on a trestle - historic trestle in Doctortown, Ga. And the crew had been assured that no trains would be coming down the track, that they had permission to film there from the landowner. And what happened was a freight train - CSX freight train - came barreling down the tracks and hit the bed and shards from the bed struck and killed the camera assistant Sarah Jones, whom you mentioned, and injured several other workers.

SIMON: Did it not develop at the trial that the people who operated the bridge had in fact not given their permission?

VERRIER: That's right. They had requested permission from CSX to film on the track itself, and CSX did not give them that permission. They never had a permit to actually film on the track, and that was the issue in the trial.

SIMON: Are there implications in this trial for other indie productions?

VERRIER: Yes, I think so. I think this - from the safety experts we talked to, this has sent a signal that independent producers who sometimes - I mean, most producers are careful and cautious, but some do cut corners. And I think for those who may want to do things on the cheap or take risks - unnecessary risks that pose hazards for the crew - I think they'll certainly think twice about doing that kind of thing in light of what's happened because the penalties can be pretty severe.

SIMON: And is this the first time that a filmmaker has gone to prison over an on-set accident?

VERRIER: As far as we know, this is the first time. I mean, this is a seminal moment. There have been other occasions when directors have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. The most famous case was the 1982 case you may remember when Vic Morrow, the actor...

SIMON: Sure.

VERRIER: ...And two child actors were killed in a horrific helicopter crash...

SIMON: This is the "Twilight Zone" movie.

VERRIER: The "Twilight Zone" movie, right, in northern Los Angeles County. And despite the fact that violations - Landis and the other defendants were acquitted. No one has actually ever pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter when it comes to a film production. So from that standpoint, this was an historic development.

SIMON: Mr. Verrier, do you foresee any changes to the way Hollywood makes its product because of the Randall Miller case?

VERRIER: Yes, I think some changes have already come about. There's definitely been more attention by film crews to speak up when they see a problem after Sarah Jones was killed. One problem that people in the industry complain about is that the fines are too minimal. OSHA fines, you know, maybe $60,000, $70,000 in a fatality and that that's perhaps not much of a disincentive for companies to change their behavior. So I think some people would argue that there needs to be more done to strengthen the fines and also to beef up enforcement because a lot of times, accidents happen and they're not reported and no one knows about them.

SIMON: Richard Verrier from the Los Angeles Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

VERRIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.