Twenty-seven years ago this week, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found director John Landis and four others not guilty in the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” some five years earlier. The scene was Indian Dunes, in the desert north of Los Angeles. It was early on the morning of July 23, 1982, when a stunt explosion sent a helicopter out of control, crashing into the actors as they crossed a shallow stream. While the accident itself was traumatic, the subsequent court case also was a drama.
Like many big Hollywood productions, the case featured a large and distinguished cast. The chief prosecutor, Lea Purwin D’Agostino, who had an entertainment background before joining the D.A.’s office, was known by her colleagues as the “Dragon Lady.” It probably had something to do with her colorful attire and “take no prisoners” courtroom demeanor. One of Landis’ attorneys was a former Watergate prosecutor. The case also included location work, with the jury taking field trips – three of them – to visit the film site and to view the uncut footage of the gruesome accident on theater screens. In the courtroom, D’Agostino brought in 71 prosecution witnesses, including actor-director Jackie Cooper, who testified that as a director he would have used stunt performers or dummies instead of live actors in dangerous scenes. The one time child actor was especially critical of the use of children within close proximity of a hovering helicopter.
Although the defendants admitted that they used the two children without the proper permits or supervision, the D.A.’s case didn’t focus on the technical issues; instead seeking criminal negligence and manslaughter convictions. In news conferences before and after the trial, Landis insisted that the deaths were the result of an unavoidable accident. Apparently, the jury agreed. After deliberating nine days they returned innocent verdicts on all counts. The two families whose children were killed reached an out of court settlement with the production company a year later.
As for the epilogue, in 2001 prosecutor D’Agostino ran unsuccessfully for L.A. City Attorney and retired from the D.A,’s office in 2006. John Landis is still active in films and television. As a result of the case, California legislators passed additional laws governing the use of children in films, and business picked up for companies that specialize in risk management.