'Midnight Rider' director Randall Miller's plea deal may be historic

'Midnight Rider' director Randall Miller's plea deal may be historic
"Midnight Rider" director Randall Miller poses for a mug shot photo. (Released by the Wayne County Sheriff)

"Midnight Rider" director Randall Miller's guilty plea in connection with charges related to the death of a 27-year-old camera assistant marks what many believe is a first for the industry.

Entertainment industry attorneys in the case said they could not recall another case where a filmmaker had pleaded guilty to criminal charges over a film set accident.

Miller was sentenced to 10 years, though he is only expected to serve two years in jail. The rest of the time would be probation, during which he would be barred from serving as a director, assistant director or in any supervisory capacity on a film set. Charges against his wife and "Midnight Rider" producer Jody Savin were dropped.

The charges stemmed from an accident in February 2014 when Jones was killed and several other crew members were injured when a freight train collided into the crew as they were filming on a train trestle. Authorities said they did not have permission to film on the tracks.

Though fatal accidents have a long history in Hollywood going back to the earliest days of cinema, criminal charges against filmmakers are extremely rare because of the difficulty of proving that they acted with intent to cause harm.

The last high-profile case against a Hollywood director involved the 1982 "Twilight Zone: The Movie" accident in northern Los Angeles County in which star Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter that crashed into them during filming.

Like the "Midnight Rider" incident, the accident triggered a wave of debate about film set safety. Director John Landis and four others were tried and acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Kevin Boyle, a Los Angeles attorney who has worked on several film-set accident cases, said "Midnight Rider" marked the first time in three decades that a filmmaker had been criminally charged over a film set accident. "I'm not aware of any other case," he said.

While some in the industry were shocked by just a two-year sentence, lawyer Laurie Levenson said the plea deal is not surprising, given the potential difficulty of securing a conviction in such cases.

"Obviously this is a really serious matter, but this is the nature of plea bargaining," she said. "Miller is going to jail. It doesn't reverse the tragedy but it is making someone be held criminally responsible."

Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the case could make filmmakers think twice about following safety rules on set.

"Sometimes the only way to get people to pay attention to safety is to show them the consequences will be grave if they don't," she said, citing the "Twilight Zone" case. "It's almost like you have to remind every generation of filmmakers you don't get to take this risk with people's lives."