More than four years after the horrendous helicopter crash that took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," the curtain is finally about to rise on "Twilight Zone: The Trial."
On Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino is scheduled to make her opening statement and later call her first witnesses against director John Landis and four associates, each of whom are charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Since the time of the tragedy on the film set near Saugus, a swirl of publicity has surrounded the case, with international media coverage ranging from gory specifics of the victims' injuries to such light fare as details of where Landis dined the afternoon before jury selection began.
But now, after a monthlong jury selection process that concluded last week, 12 Los Angeles County residents will finally be asked by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roger Boren to put aside any preconceptions and, once and for all, decide the key issue:
Should the defendants, none of whom has criminal records or had deliberately sought to injure the actors, be judged criminally responsible for the fatalities?
More than 100 witnesses--ranging from on-the-scene film crew workers to Hollywood directors who would explain the proper means of filming special effects sequences--are expected to testify for the prosecution.
"The people's burden of proof is to establish gross negligence," D'Agostino said. "And as the witnesses come forward to testify as to what occurred on that set, these facts will become quite manifest."
Landis, associate producer George Folsey Jr., unit production manager Dan Allingham, helicopter pilot Dorcey A. Wingo and special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart are accused of homicide in the deaths of Morrow, 53, and Vietnamese immigrant children Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7.
The actors were killed July 23, 1982, when, during the shooting of a Vietnam War battle sequence, a helicopter spun out of control and crashed down upon them, decapitating Morrow and Lee and crushing Chen.
Among the issues D'Agostino is expected to stress during the anticipated four-month trial are the low level at which the helicopter hovered near the actors--apparently about 20 feet above ground--the alleged conspiracy of Landis, Allingham and Folsey to illegally hire the children to work at night without state permits, and the massive special effects explosions set off near the helicopter.
D'Agostino has told the court that she plans to show the jury film footage of the fatal scene. And she also intends to call witnesses from previous "Twilight Zone" hearings who have testified to statements attributed to Folsey and Landis: In Folsey's case, a comment that he and others would probably be thrown in jail for hiring the children without state permits; and with Landis, an ultimately prophetic retort to complaints that a dress rehearsal of the ill-fated scene was dangerous. Landis, the prosecution contends, "simply said, "That is just a warm up for what's coming."
Although D'Agostino is reluctant to discuss in greater detail her trial strategy outside court, she has indicated that she will stick to the tack employed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary P. Kesselman, who handled the case during the pretrial stages.
"The underlying theme of this case is that you don't fly helicopters into or near fireballs or special effects explosions," Kesselman said at a 1984 hearing before Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer. "Something might happen."
After that session, Ringer agreed that the case should go to trial.
"This isn't nickelodeon time anymore," the judge explained at the 1984 hearing. "But I should have thought that after 75 years, somebody might have thought it inappropriate to put Lillian Gish on an ice floe and send her into the middle of Niagara Falls to make a movie. . . .
"Whether a jury will determine that one or more of the defendants was simply civilly negligent or whether a jury will determine that they are all criminally negligent is not for me," Ringer continued. "But this is a case to be tried."
At that pretrial stage, probable cause of guilt was the standard for sending the case to trial. Now, the jury must find the film makers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict them.
"The basic defense," said Landis' counsel, James F. Neal, "will be that there was absolutely no criminal negligence involved in this. It just simply was a tragic accident. Accidents do happen."
More specifically, defense attorneys are expected to assert that their clients exercised adequate care and did not realize the risks involved in filming the fatal sequence.
The defense will also highlight evidence concerning the specific scientific reasons for the crash, and will question the prosecution's decision to single out the five defendants from among the more than 100 people on the film set.