The criminal case prosecutors are filing against Alec Baldwin will turn on the same question that has dogged the New York actor since the day he shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of the film “Rust”: Is he responsible for her death?
Under New Mexico’s involuntary manslaughter law, Baldwin could face up to 18 months in prison if a trial jury finds that he acted “without due caution and circumspection” when he pointed a replica of a vintage Pietta Colt .45 revolver at Hutchins during the setup of a camera angle in October 2021.
Jurors in New Mexico are instructed by the judge to convict an involuntary manslaughter defendant if they conclude the person “should have known of the danger involved” and “acted with a willful disregard for the safety of others.”
Under the second criminal charge expected against Baldwin, involuntary manslaughter in the commission of a lawful act, Baldwin could face a mandatory five-year jail sentence because a firearm was used, prosecutors said.
Baldwin has proclaimed his innocence. It was not his responsibility as an actor, he said, to ensure the pistol was not loaded with live ammunition, which is normally banned on all movie sets.
Assistant Director Dave Halls — who has agreed to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon — had told Baldwin that it was a “cold gun,” meaning its cylinder had been checked to ensure it was safe to use as a prop, according to the actor.
It was Hutchins herself, Baldwin said, who told him to point the gun toward her as she was plotting a camera angle in a small church on the Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe.
“I got countless people online saying, ‘You idiot, you never point a gun at someone,’” Baldwin told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in December 2021. “Well, unless you’re told it’s empty, and it’s the director of photography who’s instructing you on the angle for a shot we’re going to do.
“And she and I had this thing in common, where we both thought it was empty, and it wasn’t. And that’s not her responsibility. That’s not my responsibility. Whose responsibility it is remains to be seen.”
Mary Carmack-Altwies, the district attorney in Santa Fe, nonetheless laid some of the blame on Baldwin, announcing involuntary manslaughter charges against both him and the film set’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed.
“On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice,” the D.A. said in a statement Thursday morning.
The prosecutor’s decision came as no surprise to legal experts.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where the person who fires the gun is relieved of any responsibility,” said Joshua Kastenberg, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Beyond whatever facts the investigation uncovered, he said, the prosecutor was facing strong political pressure to file charges against Baldwin in a case that has drawn enormous local and national news coverage.
“As a D.A., you want to send a message … that you don’t have two legal systems in your county, one for the powerful, and one for everybody else,” Kastenberg said.
Baldwin is already fighting civil lawsuits accusing him of negligence for his shooting of Hutchins and “Rust” director Joel Souza, who was struck by the same bullet after it passed through Hutchins’ body.
“The idea the person holding the gun, causing it to discharge, is not responsible is absurd to me,” Matt Hutchins, the cinematographer’s husband, said on NBC’s “Today” show after filing a wrongful-death suit against Baldwin, Gutierrez Reed, Halls and others. “Every individual who touches a firearm has a responsibility for gun safety.” (Hutchins and Baldwin reached a confidential settlement last year.)
But the standard of proof for civil liability is lower than for criminal conviction. Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the actor committed involuntary manslaughter, which in New Mexico is an unlawful killing of a person “without malice.”
One of the main challenges prosecutors will face is to prove that Baldwin displayed “willful” disregard for others’ safety, Andrea Reeb, a former eastern New Mexico district attorney, told The Times in an interview before she was named special prosecutor for the “Rust” case.
“‘Willful’ is a big word in there,” Reeb said.
Baldwin has said he did not pull the gun’s trigger.
But an FBI analysis of the pistol found that it “functioned normally when tested in the laboratory,” and in order for the gun to fire, the trigger needed to be pulled.
Manslaughter charges for accidents on movie sets are rare. Kastenberg teaches law students that manslaughter, with all of its nuance, can be harder to prosecute than murder.
“With premeditated murder, mostly you’ve got great evidence — someone confessed, or someone had a motive, and there’s blood on their hands, or there’s good DNA evidence, and there’s all sorts of behavior before and after the crime that helps you build the case,” he said.
In 1987, a Los Angeles jury acquitted director John Landis and four associates of involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children in a helicopter crash on the set of the “Twilight Zone” movie. After a 10-month trial, the jury foreman told reporters it was “an unforeseeable accident” that did not warrant prosecution.
But director Randall Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and served just over a year in prison for a 2014 train crash in Georgia that killed assistant camera operator Sarah Jones, 27, during filming of “Midnight Rider,” a biopic about rock star Gregg Allman.
Executive producer Jay Sedrish and assistant director Hillary Schwartz also pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; they were sentenced to probation.
The filmmakers had decided to shoot a scene on a trestle that spans a river even after railroad track owner CSX denied them permission. A train zoomed into the set at 55 mph.
John Samore, a criminal defense attorney in Albuquerque, expects a clash of expert witnesses testifying about whether Baldwin’s conduct was in keeping with gun safety protocols that are commonly observed in the film industry.
“The standard is, was he reckless?” Samore said.
A few weeks after Hutchins was shot, film star George Clooney said that the accidental shooting death of actor Brandon Lee on the set of “The Crow” in 1993 led many actors to start routinely examining a gun’s bullet chamber before using it in a scene.
“Every single time I’m handed a gun on a set, every time … I look at it, I open it, I show it to the person I’m pointing it to, show it to the crew,” Clooney said on the “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast. “Every single take, you hand it back to the armorer when you’re done. You do it again. And part of it is because of what happened to Brandon. Everyone does it. Everybody knows. And maybe Alec did that. Hopefully he did do that.”
When Stephanopoulos played a recording of Clooney’s remarks on ABC, Baldwin snapped: “If your protocol is you check the gun every time, well, good for you. Good for you.”
Baldwin said he had been taught early in his career that filmmakers “don’t want the actor to be the last line of defense against a catastrophic breach of safety with the gun.”
“What is the actor’s responsibility?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“The actor’s responsibility is to do what the prop armorer tells them to do,” Baldwin responded.
Whether that approach shows enough “due caution and circumspection” will be up to the jury.