How strong is the criminal case against Alec Baldwin?
Criminal charges are expected to be formally filed by the end of the month against Alec Baldwin in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchinson on the “Rust” movie set in New Mexico.
But, just one day after prosecutors announced they will charge the actor and the film’s armorer with involuntary manslaughter, some legal experts already are questioning the strength of the case.
“Look, I don’t want to prejudge before we have a jury impaneled and arguments made but I think this is a significantly difficult prosecution that probably should not have been brought in the first instance,” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said Friday.
“It’s an ill advised prosecution. I think it’s ill informed and I think it sets a very dangerous precedent. It’s very tragic, sad, unfortunate and heartbreaking that this had to occur. But the fact that you’re going to criminalize this is very problematic.”
Hutchins was killed on the film’s New Mexico set in October 2021 when a prop gun Baldwin was holding fired a live round of ammunition, striking her in the chest and wounding director Joel Souza in the shoulder.
New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said both Baldwin and set armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed were responsible for checking the safety of the weapon.
“Every person that handles a gun has a duty to make sure that if they’re going to handle that gun, point it at someone and pull the trigger, that it is not going to fire a projectile and kill someone,” Carmack-Altwies told CNN Thursday, explaining the prosecution’s reasoning.
Jackson said actors on a set with a lot of moving parts “should be reasonably relying upon other members of the team to do their job.”
“It shouldn’t be before the jury because again, people work cooperatively as a team — in the context of a movie set, in the context of a prop, in the context of you being handed a gun that should have been checked multiple times before it even came to your attention.”
‘A really difficult case for the prosecution’
Baldwin has maintained that he never pulled the trigger and was not aware the gun contained live rounds. Gutierrez Reed, who loaded the prop gun, has said she believed the rounds were dummy ammunition, according to her lawyer.
Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed will each face two counts of involuntary manslaughter, Carmack-Altwies said.
To convince a jury of Baldwin’s criminal liability, CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig said, prosecutors will face significant challenges, including not knowing how live rounds got on set and experts’ varying opinions on the on-set responsibilities of actors and crew members.
“Remember, this is a criminal case,” Honig said. “You need all 12 jurors to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So I’m not saying that there’s no chance here, but this is a really difficult case for the prosecution.”
Carmack-Altwies told CNN “we might not ever know” how live rounds got onto the set — which Honig called “a major factual issue” in the prosecution’s case.
“The defense lawyer is going to stand in front of a jury someday and say, ‘They want you to convict my client and they can’t even tell you how those live rounds got there,'” Honig said.
Baldwin’s claim he didn’t pull trigger could hurt him
The prosecutor noted what she called “fast and loose” safety standards on set and overall lack of caution around firearms props as factors that contributed to the fatal shooting. A medical examiner listed Hutchins’ death as an accident.
“There was such a lack of safety and safety standards on that set,” Carmack-Altwies said, adding that live rounds were mixed with dummy rounds on set.
Both Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed were responsible for checking the safety of the prop, according to Carmack-Altwies.
“Every person that handles a gun has a duty to make sure that if they’re going to handle that gun, point it at someone and pull the trigger, that it is not going to fire a projectile and kill someone,” the prosecutor said.
Anne Bremner, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said Baldwin’s defense attorneys will try to show that he relied on the armorer and others on the set to ensure that the weapon was not loaded with a live round.
“He’s going to say … ‘I relied on these people and this is a horrible thing. It is heartbreaking and I can’t believe it happened to this family but I shouldn’t be on trial,’ ” Bremner said, referring to Baldwin.
‘A good chance of beating these charges’
Baldwin has said he did not pull the trigger before the gun fired.
During FBI testing of the the gun’s normal functioning, the weapon could not be fired without pulling the trigger while the firearm was cocked, an FBI forensics report said. Eventually, the gun malfunctioned during testing after internal parts fractured, which caused the gun to go off in the cocked position without pulling the trigger, the report said.
“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,” said the actor’s attorney, Luke Nikas.
Bremner said Baldwin’s claiming that he did not pull the trigger could hurt him in court.
“The FBI has determined in this case that he did pull the trigger,” she said. “So that is the way that the case could be portrayed to a jury — which is, he’s already falsely said he didn’t pull the trigger and we know that is a lie.”
Bernarda Villalona, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said prosecutors will have a hard time proving criminal negligence on the part of Baldwin.
“It’s going to be difficult as to Alec Baldwin, the actor, because they’re charging that he should look and check the gun to make sure that it was dummies but that’s not his job,” she said. “That’s not what he’s trained to do… So this is going to be a long fight and Alec Baldwin he has a good chance of beating these charges.”
In addition to acting in “Rust,” Baldwin was also a producer on the film. Prosecutors will be charging him in both capacities, Carmack-Altwies said. As a producer, Baldwin had a responsibility to ensure the set was safe, she added.
Ultimately, the prosecutor said, “just because it’s an accident doesn’t mean that it’s not criminal.”
Honig said charging Baldwin as both an actor and producer “are completely different factual and legal scenarios.”
“The question about a producer — that gets into the questions of what exactly was Alec Baldwin’s job, what were his responsibilities as it relates to the many other directors, producers, professionals on that set — and look, sometimes people are producers in name … but are not actually in charge of things in a hands-on way,” he said.
For Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed, much is at stake.
They will each face two counts of involuntary manslaughter, but each count carries a different level of punishment, Carmack-Altwies said.
A jury would decide which count would be more appropriate, and if convicted, they will only be sentenced to one count, the prosecutor said.
In either defendant’s case, a conviction is punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. But one charge carries an additional firearms enhancement — because a gun was involved — and would require a mandatory punishment of five years in jail, the prosecutor said.
Fordham law school criminal law professor Cheryl Bader said the circumstances of the case “would point to negligence, but the question is, does it rise to the level of criminal negligence, and who is the negligent party?
“The fine line between accident and criminal negligence will be for the jury to draw,” Bader said in a statement.
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