Director John Landis was found innocent this afternoon of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors killed on the “Twilight Zone” movie set.
A seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated nine days before finding the 36-year-old film maker innocent of five counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the July 23, 1982, helicopter crash. Three other film makers, George Folsey, Dan Allingham, Paul Stewart, and pilot Dorcey Wingo also were acquitted on all counts against them.
The 15 verdicts were read to a virtually silent courtroom, presided over by Superior Court Judge Roger W. Boren, beginning at 1:51 p.m.
A “media circus” had gathered a half hour before the verdict was scheduled to be read at 1:30 p.m.
Some of the defense team had given the “V for victory” sign as they entered the courtroom through a crush of reporters and prosecutor Lea Purwin D’Agostino had conceded she had “butterflies, of course.”
The five defendants were accused of acting with criminal negligence in the July, 1982, deaths of the three actors, who were struck and killed by a Huey UH-1B helicopter during the late-night filming of a mock Vietnam battle scene at Indian Dunes Park near Saugus.
The script had called for Morrow to heroically carry the children across the Santa Clara River, away from the pursuing helicopter. But instead, as film crew members and visitors stared in horror, the three-ton aircraft careened out of the sky after its tail rotor was engulfed by the blazing fireball of a special-effects explosive.
Renee Chen, 6, was crushed by the helicopter. Morrow, 53, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, were decapitated by the main rotor blade.
Neither the fatal scene nor any reference to the children was included in the film. However, the repercussions of the accident still reverberate through the film community.
“If there is (another) director out there who is willing to sacrifice or to risk sacrificing human lives for the sake of reality . . . (perhaps) that director will (now) think twice,” the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D’Agostino, said before the verdict. According to D’Agostino, the “Twilight Zone” accident is the first ever in which young children were killed on a Hollywood film set. And Landis is the only Hollywood director ever to be criminally charged for deaths on a set, authorities say.
The defense maintained that the tragedy was not criminal in nature, but rather an unfortunate accident resulting from “unforeseen and unforeseeable” circumstances. In essence, the defense pinned the blame on a special-effects crew member who ignited the fatal explosives without looking up at the helicopter.
Landis, Folsey and Allingham had admitted long before the trial that they illegally hired the children without a needed state permit. However, the district attorney’s office did not charge them with that crime.
By the time jurors finally began their deliberations, they had heard 93 days of testimony followed by four days of prosecution rebuttal and 13 days of final arguments. In 71 days of prosecution testimony, D’Agostino called 71 witnesses, ranging from the parents of the dead children to expert helicopter pilots and actor/director Jackie Cooper.