TAOS, New Mexico — American actor Alec Baldwin faces involuntary manslaughter charges carrying prison time in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during the 2021 filming of Western Rust in New Mexico.
Santa Fe's top prosecutor, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, said on Thursday (Jan 19) that the film's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, would also be charged with involuntary manslaughter. She said charges would be filed by the end of this month.
Hutchins' family welcomed the announcement, while Baldwin attorney Luke Nikas said, "this decision distorts Halyna Hutchins' tragic death and represents a terrible miscarriage of justice."
The charging decision followed more than a year of investigation after a pistol was fired in October 2021 as Baldwin, 64, was rehearsing with it on the set of his movie Rust outside Santa Fe. The movie's director, Joel Souza, was hit and wounded by the same .45-caliber bullet that killed Hutchins.
According to a police report, David Halls, the assistant director who handed the gun to Baldwin, told the actor it was "cold," an industry term meaning it did not contain blank rounds. Halls signed a plea agreement for the charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon, Carmack-Altwies said in her statement. Gutierrez-Reed had handled the gun before Halls.
Prosecutors told the New York Times it was part of industry standards for actors to check that firearms they used were safe to handle and to follow a basic gun safety practise of never pointing them at anyone.
Baldwin has pushed back at that idea, saying firearm safety was the responsibility of the armorer and first director and that he was directed to aim the pistol at the cinematographer.
"You should not point a gun at someone that you're not willing to shoot," Carmack-Altwies said in an interview with the Times on Thursday.
Prosecutors could face long odds securing a conviction, according to legal experts, who said that if on-set professionals told Baldwin the gun did not contain live ammunition, he wouldn't be obligated to inspect it himself.
"It's a very aggressive charging decision, and the defence has a strong case," said personal injury attorney and former prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who was not involved in the Rust case. "Accidents like this are not enough for criminal liability."
Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed will be charged "in the alternative" with two counts of manslaughter, meaning a jury will decide not only if they were guilty, but under which definition of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor said.
Simple involuntary manslaughter for negligence is punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a US$5,000 (S$6,616) fine. Should prosecutors prove there was more than simple negligence involved in the use of a firearm, they could face a mandatory five-year jail term.
Baldwin has denied responsibility for Hutchins' death and said he did not pull the trigger of the replica Pietta .45-caliber long Colt revolver.
An FBI forensic test of the revolver found it "functioned normally" and would not fire without the trigger being pulled.
"Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win," his attorney Nikas said.
Firearms guidance from SAG-AFTRA, a union representing US film and television actors, instructs artists to treat firearms as though they are loaded with blanks and recommends consulting a safety handler before pointing a gun at someone on camera, and never placing a finger on a trigger unless ready to shoot.
The guide reminds actors that blank ammunition can kill and live ammunition is never to be brought onto a film set.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office investigation did not reveal how live ammunition got onto the Rust set.
Brian Panish, a lawyer representing the Hutchins family, said his own investigation found charges were warranted.
The family sued Baldwin in 2021, alleging the Emmy-winning 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live actor had a responsibility to check that the gun did not contain blank rounds, to not cock the weapon and to not point it at Hutchins and pull the trigger.
The family subsequently reached a settlement in which Matt Hutchins became an executive producer of Rust. Production was set to resume early in 2023 outside New Mexico.
New Mexico's worker safety agency in April fined the film's production company US$137,000, the maximum amount possible, for what it described as "wilful" safety lapses leading to Hutchins' death.
Hours before the incident, camera operators walked off the set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, south of Santa Fe, protesting what they saw as poor set safety and working conditions.
Lawyer Duncan Levin said the case revolved around ill-defined film industry firearm safety standards and seemed more a question of civil law than a criminal case.
"Prosecutors have a lot of work ahead of them to demonstrate that putting Alec Baldwin in prison for this is the right outcome," said Levin, who has represented actors and entertainment personalities.
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